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Rep. Mel Newendyke (R-Litchfield)
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For Immediate Release

Date: 03/26/12

Rep. Newendyke Op-Ed: Legislature puts copper thieves in crosshairs

To the Kennebec Journal

By Rep. Mel Newendyke

Imagine coming home after a weekend away to find water pouring out of your front door. Exploring inside, you discover that all the copper piping in your house has been ripped out. Water flows freely, filling your basement and reaching the ground floor. Even the copper pipes in your baseboard heating registers have been torn out. Your house is a wreck, your furniture is ruined and repairs will be costly.

You have been victimized by copper thieves, a fast-growing class of criminals who steal copper wherever they can find it. In a typical scenario, they sell it to scrap metal dealers and use the "proceeds" to buy drugs, most often prescription painkillers.

Countless Maine homeowners have suffered at the hands of copper thieves, who leave a trail of wanton destruction in their quest for money and drugs. But it is not only homeowners who have fallen victim. Copper thieves have also hit electric utilities, communications companies, construction sites and even schools - nothing is sacred.

In January, the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee held a public hearing on LD 1708, "An Act To Prevent the Theft and Illegal Sale of Copper and Other Metals." A steady stream of people testifying in favor of the legislation described a hideous situation that has gripped Maine ever since scrap metal prices soared and the prescription drug abuse epidemic took hold.

Colonel Robert Williams, Chief of the Maine State Police, told the Committee that metal theft has become one of the largest and most time-consuming problems facing law enforcement. "The impacts are devastating to both the private citizen who is victimized, as well as to private businesses," he said.

Col. Williams spoke about a camp that had been left vacant over the winter. When the owners returned in the spring, they found that all of the metal siding had been stripped off and stolen, along with the entire metal roof. "Or imagine being a business owner with a fleet of trucks," he added. "On Monday morning your drivers show up for work to find that catalytic converters and other metal parts have been stolen off the trucks, rendering the entire fleet useless. It takes days and thousands of dollars to repair the damage."

Daniel Tourtelotte, a Maine Licensed Professional Investigator, was called in by Bangor Hydro Electric in 2011 after thieves had stolen copper ground wire from 13 active substations. He followed the trail logically to scrap metal dealers to get their side of the story.

"It became apparent," he told the Committee, "that at the very least, most of the scrap metal dealers felt no responsibility in reporting the purchase of material that was questionable. In some cases, they actually aided the criminals in the sale of stolen copper by not reporting purchases, hiding the stolen copper, shipping stolen copper soon after the purchase, paying cash instead of by check and doctoring the purchase documents to indicate that the copper was some other type of metal. One scrap metal dealer made this comment, and I quote, 'If it wasn't for these people stealing this stuff, I would be out of business.' "

The Committee also heard from Charles Rumsey, Deputy Chief of Police in Waterville. In recent years, he said, Waterville "has experienced a dramatic increase in burglaries and thefts of scrap metal."

He noted that unoccupied houses - those for sale or in foreclosure - are often prime targets for thieves. "Copper piping and other forms of scrap metal are easily transportable, are difficult to identify with certainty and can rapidly be transported to a scrap dealer and sold for sizeable sums of money," he said. "Current laws offer little or no sanctions against processors who purchase stolen material or fail to keep accurate records."

LD 1708, if approved by the full Legislature, will attack the problem on several fronts.

For example, it broadens the definition for "scrap metal processor" to include any processor who purchases scrap metal, whether from a fixed location or not. This will remove the middleman "buffer." It adds the requirement that the signed statement made by the seller be on a form provided by the buyer, which bears the warning that giving a false statement is a Class D crime, making the fines more punitive.

Moreover, law enforcement officers may impose a seven-day hold on a processor if there is "reasonable suspicion" that the dealer has stolen metal. That will give police more time to investigate a crime. A second seven-day hold can be imposed if needed.

Also, the Department of Public Safety will review the proposed development of an integrated criminal alert network to track scrap metal thefts across the state.

The Committee tried to strike a balance between cracking down on scrap metal processors without being so stringent that legitimate metal recyclers would be harmed. This was no easy task. ###

State Rep. Mel Newendyke (R-Litchfield) serves on the Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee

Jay Finegan
Maine House Republicans
Tel: (207) 287-1445