Shining light on shady deals

Published 7:58 pm Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Anyone who has ever experienced a theft can attest that it’s an emotional experience that goes beyond the value of the item that was stolen. Each theft imposes a sense of violation on the victim, along with seemingly contradictory feelings of helplessness and responsibility. At the same time they are struggling with their sense of vulnerability, theft victims often find themselves wondering if something they could have done would have kept them from being victimized.

Into that soup of emotions, many theft victims in recent years have had to add one more: bewilderment. How else to describe the emotion of learning, for example, that someone stole your church’s brand new air conditioning unit and then tore it apart and sold it as scrap metal? Or learning that your car has been ruined because a thief removed its catalytic converter to sell it for a few dollars? Or finding the home you’re building destroyed by thieves who removed the copper pipes and aluminum wires from the walls?

Honest people struggle to comprehend and accept the meaninglessness of a theft that fails to recognize the true value of the items that are stolen. But to someone supporting a crack or meth habit, for instance, the value of just about anything can be seen only in terms of the amount of drugs it will finance.

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Delegate Richard Morris, a Republican from Carrollton, is trying to help law enforcement officials bring this particular wave of crime under control. A bill he co-sponsored, HB 1481, would require scrap metals purchasers to maintain photo or video records of their exchanges with sellers for as long as 30 days, giving police a chance to examine video evidence that could help them catch the thieves in many of these crimes.

Morris’ bill treats scrap metal recyclers in a similar way to how pawn shops are treated under Virginia law, which requires them to collect an array of information about the merchandise and sellers in any incoming transaction and to forward those reports to police every day. It’s appropriate that the two industries would be held to similar reporting standards, as they — even in the midst of doing mostly legal, above-board business — often find themselves approached by criminals seeking shady deals at the expense of faceless victims.

Morris’ bill would shine a light on those deals. It received overwhelming support in the House of Delegates and now makes its way through the Senate. It deserves similar support from that side of the Capitol Building and then a quick trip to the governor’s office for a signature.