D.A. wants to crack down on copper theft

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, February 14, 2012

This image, taken after a real report of copper theft in Bainbridge, shows the damage left behind by thieves who tear apart air conditioning units and strip them of copper tubing, which they take to recycle for relatively small amounts of money, compared with the amount it will cost the victim to replace the air conditioner, according to BPS Investigator Ryan Deen.

District Attorney Joe Mulholland is part of a group seeking to further crack down on copper wiring thefts, which he said cause significant damage to agriculture, residences and businesses.

Copper theft has been an ongoing problem since the 2000s—population growth in China and elsewhere have led to high demand for copper, which is used in everything from insulation for pipes and wires in buildings, in car parts and in farming irrigation systems. As demand grew, scrap metal recycling businesses paid out a higher per-pound price for copper; depending on its quality and how it was used, scrap copper can fetch between $2 and $3 per pound.

“We’ve had people pull wire out of homes, apartments, businesses and even churches,” said Bainbridge Public Safety Investigator Ryan Deen.

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In 2009, as part of a legislative advisory committee comprised of D.A.’s from around the state, Mulholland helped craft a Georgia law that helped address copper theft for the first time. Now, proposed legislation in the Georgia General Assembly’s 2011-2012 regular session seeks to put tougher penalties on anyone who steals copper or on any businesses who enable it.

According to Mulholland, the 2009 scrap metal law did several things: it required recycling businesses to photograph any material they accepted and keep records of who brought in copper for trading; the law also classified theft of non-ferrous metals (such as aluminum, brass and copper) as a felony. Perhaps most importantly for victims of copper theft, the law forces anyone convicted of stealing copper to pay back the victim for any costs to repair or replace what they damaged to get the copper.

“We’ve been effective in prosecuting people under the 2009 law, but you’re still seeing a spike in the number of reported thefts, maybe due to the economy,” Mulholland said. “Farmers aren’t hit quite as hard as before because they’re using technology to help catch the criminals.”

At the same time, the district attorney said more people are starting to become aware of the problem copper theft presents because its victims can be everyone from realtors, landlords, homeowners, churches and utility companies.


What’s next

Mulholland said district attorneys and the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association would like to see lawmakers pass even stronger laws to crack down on copper theft.

One suggestion Mulholland had is to change theft of non-ferrous metals, a felony, to be punishable by up to ten years in prison, compared to the current five-year maximum sentence.

“It’s unrealistic to expect someone convicted of copper theft to be able to pay back restitution to the victim, who may be out thousands of dollars, in a period of four years after they get out of prison,” Mulholland said.

BPS Investigator Deen recalled a recent case in which thieves took copper out of an industrial-sized air conditioner and traded it in for $120. However, including the labor involved, the victim had to pay $5,000 or more to replace the air conditioner.

One of the proposed bills would require recycling businesses to pay out in time-delayed checks rather than cash on the spot. Mulholland said another idea is to make businesses take quick “red dye” fingerprints of customers, like some banks do when cashing large checks. The businesses might also be required to photograph any copper brought in for recycling.

“From a police perspective, it would help us out a lot if the businesses added a written description or a photo of what was brought in,” said Investigator Deen. “Sometimes, you can distinguish between copper wiring and tubing as to where it might have come from. If we know that copper has been taken from inside a home, or from an air conditioner, we might be able to find it easier.”

Another bill would make it illegal for recyclers to accept specific items, such as catalytic converters from automobiles.

“That’s a bigger problem in cities like Albany, Atlanta and Columbus, where thieves can cut the catalytic converters off 10 cars parked in a shopping center fairly quickly,” Mulholland said. “Of course, the drivers are out of luck because their car may not work right and the converter costs a lot to replace.”

The three proposed new laws related to copper theft which are being considered by the Georgia Legislature during its current session are House Bill 872, Senate Bill 296 and Senate Bill 321. The full text of the bills can be read by visiting www.legis.ga.gov online.

Brennan Leathers can be reached by e-mail at brennan.leathers@thepostsearchlight.com, or by telephone at (229) 246-2827, Ext. 115.