An extensive matrix of metal theft legislation pending in
state legislatures contains a number of common themes, but also
suggests something of a "crazy quilt" approach to the issue.
Some of the proposed state measures apply only to copper, while
others cover only scrap metal or all metals and materials.
States and cities across the United States are struggling to
get a handle on the problem, with thefts ranging from several
sets of aluminum bleachers at a Washington high school football
field only blocks from the Capitol to guard rails along the
scenic Pali Highway near Honolulu, to dangerous situations
involving utility and power lines that in some cases has
resulted in the death of the thief.
Unfortunately, the trend shows no signs of abating any time
soon. The combination of higher metal prices and the worst
economy since the Great Depression has brought all sorts of new
opportunities for metal thieves. Catalytic converters
containing palladium and platinum are being ripped out of
vehicles; aluminum siding is being pulled off houses; and
copper pipe and wiring is being stripped out of foreclosed
homes in Detroit, Cleveland and many other distressed urban
But state and local efforts to cope with the issue have been
piecemeal at best. California took a number of seemingly
significant steps at the end of 2008, with the state Assembly
and Senate passing five separate pieces of legislation
attempting to deal with the burgeoning problem there. Effective
Jan. 1 this year, the nation's most populous state cracked down
specifically on thefts of catalytic converters by mandating
that metal recyclers maintain a paper trail on their
All told, 46 states and countless cities and counties have
significantly tightened the penalties for metal theft or
imposed tougher requirements on scrap dealers, according to
Jonathan Levy, director of state and local programs at the
Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI) government
Levy has done yeoman's work in compiling a state-by-state
capsule report on pending legislation, although he's reluctant
to attempt to "handicap the prospects for any of these bills."
A look at several, which are among hundreds, gives an inkling
of the scope of the bills pending this year:
Colorado: Proposed legislation would
require the buyer of the "commodity metal" to photograph the
seller, keep the photo for three years and cross reference it
with the records of the sale.
Hawaii: Pending legislation would require
removal of the sunset provision on its existing law covering
Minnesota: Three separate metal
theft-related bills are pending. One would toughen
identification requirements for scrap metal sales, requiring
identification as well as civil liability; another would
increase the penalties for metal thefts involving copper or
aluminum wire, cable and tubing; and a third would modify the
existing criminal justice code to cover metal thefts.
New York: One bill would require those
pledging goods to a collateral loan broker or selling goods to
a second-hand dealer to sign a sworn written statement, and
provide punishment for false statements. Another bill would
establish a statewide task force on metal thefts.
Pennsylvania: Pending legislation would
allow a scrap processor or recycling facility operator to
purchase new production scrap or new materials from either
individuals or companies "only if the purchase occurs with a
South Carolina: Proposed legislation would
prohibit a person from transporting more than 25 pounds of
nonferrous metal unless the person possesses a bill of sale
signed by "certain designated retail or wholesale dealers of
A common theme in many of the measures is a requirement for
scrap dealers to record ID information or, in some cases, to
photograph or thumbprint sellers of material above a specified
dollar amount, Levy said.
Despite these moves, the problem remains a stubborn one. And
it appears to be getting worse despite an aggressive approach
by the scrap industry itself, which is working closely with law
enforcement officials in an attempt to stem the wave of metal
and material thefts.
All sides agree that a key factor driving thefts has been
the sharp jump in metal prices in recent years. With the value
of copper more than doubling last year alone, few expect the
problem to ease in the near term. Some also suggest that drugs
play an important role, with more metal thefts likely to occur
in places where the use of methamphetamine is heavy.
Spot copper prices on the Comex division of the New York
Mercantile Exchange ended 2009 at $3.3275 per pound, up from
$1.444 per pound at the start of the year. In early January
this year, prices edged even higher to reach $3.4775 per
"It's very clear that the frequency of thefts is tied to
metal prices," ISRI president Robin Wiener said in a telephone
interview. "Yes .?.?. there is a greater frequency (of thefts)
because prices are higher this year than they were last
Wiener cited the success of ISRI's expanded scrap theft
alert system in stemming the rising tide of thefts, thanks to
much quicker response times. "We are very excited about the
fact that we now have over 1,100 law enforcement officers
actively participating in this program," she said. "What's
changed in the past year is that we have invested money to
create a Web-based system allowing law enforcement officers to
subscribe for free. This allows a more immediate response and
it is paying dividends for us."
Gary Bush, a former Florida police detective who heads the
group's metal theft prevention effort, "has worked extremely
hard," Wiener said. As a result, ISRI now has a "highly
effective" theft prevention operation via its ScrapTheftAlert
Wiener noted that ISRI has been active with its alert system
for "many years," and said the trade group converted to e-mail
alerts from a fax-based system about four years ago.
Bush said he believes most ISRI members are "on the same
page" about how to combat the problem. "We are trying to reach
out to local law enforcement officers wherever possible," he
said. "It's a two-way street. They (law enforcement officers)
are more than glad to work with you, so give them a chance
.?.?. that's been our message."
During the price spike of 2006 and 2007 "everybody may have
been caught with their pants down, so to speak," Bush said.
With prices moving up substantially once again in the past
year, "we're trying not to get caught with our pants down this