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Legislation targets copper thieves

By M.J. Ellington
mjellington@decaturdaily.com (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — A hysterical minister called his local legislator after he discovered that somebody stole the heating and cooling systems of his sanctuary. He did not understand why.

The owner of a fancy new barn with high-tech components did not understand why the electricity did not work the day he began moving equipment and animals into the structure.

Thieves had cut out the electrical wiring just after the electrical inspection and just before the drywall went up.

Nobody on the drywall crew noticed. Crews had to tear out the drywall and rewire the barn.

In a new home for sale in Central Alabama, a long, jagged hole in the wall of an upscale bathroom showed the wall studs behind the drywall in an area where copper water pipes were.

The attraction in every case was copper. The culprits were thieves in search of an easy buck, who sold the metal to scrap metal dealers and disappeared.

A House member says Alabama laws on scrap metal sales make it easy for people to sell stolen metal and get away undetected. The rising price of copper increases the likelihood of theft.

Theft spurred research

Rep. Randy Wood, R-Anniston, said he began researching copper theft and drafting the wording for HB 94 in 2006, after he received the call from the minister whose church heating and cooling systems were stolen for their copper. The bill passed the House judiciary committee and awaits final reading by the House.

Wood said he thought of regulating scrap metal sales after recalling how pawnshops now keep records of transactions.

His bill would require "secondary metal recyclers" to require identification and license tag numbers of people who sell metals, including the type of vehicle used to deliver the metal and the state that issued the license tag.

The bill requires that dealers keep a register of the transactions, including the type and amount of metal sold, sets criminal penalties for violators, and provides a way for law enforcement agencies to put a hold on purchases by recyclers suspected of buying stolen metal.

The bill requires that scrap metal dealers pay by check to people who sell them metals regulated in the bill, including copper, brass, aluminum, bronze, lead zinc and nickel. Currently, many metal sales are cash transactions, Wood said.

Wood said he worked with scrap metal dealers to word the bill that telephone utility providers, Alabama Power and homebuilders support.

Rep. Ronald Grantland, D-Hartselle, told the story about the high-tech barn wiring theft. A co-sponsor of the bill, Grantland said he has not heard from homeowners who lost copper this way. He said utility companies, including BellSouth (now AT&T) and homebuilders have called.

Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Capshaw, a longtime police officer, is a co-sponsor. He said the bill would help law enforcement officers catch culprits and compared copper theft to theft from clothing stores.

"Clothing stores reach a point where they have to pass the cost along to consumers," McCutcheon said. "At some point, utility companies and builders can't keep absorbing the stealing and not pass it on to consumers."

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