State lawmakers voice reservations about bills to fight the scourge of metal theft in Michigan

LANSING (WXYZ) - State legislation designed to fight the scourge of metal theft in Michigan is facing an uphill battle. The bills would crack down on metal thieves and tighten regulations on scrap yards.

But lawmakers on both sides of the isle are having reservations. Most would agree that metal theft is a very serious problem, but some think the legislation being proposed puts too much of the burden for fighting the problem on the scrap industry.

The 7 Action News Investigators documented how metal theft has become an epidemic in Detroit.  We caught thieves on our undercover camera stripping vacant houses in broad daylight, even using heavy duty tools to dismantle a huge factory.

On two recent days speakers packed a hearing room at the state capitol as lawmakers grappled with how to deal with this growing menace.

It's a problem across the country, and especially bad in our state.

"Currently Michigan ranks tenth in the nation in metal theft insurance claims reported," Sergeant Amy Denher of the Michigan State Police told members of the House Regulatory Reform Committee.

An investigator for CSX Railroads testified that the company lost ten thousand dollars to metal thefts over a period of two months and railroad police even exchanged gunfire with the thieves.

"Had we had something in place such as a no-buy list where we could put individuals on a list where scrap yards are not allowed to buy from them this very well may have prevented an incident such as this," said Ruben Vasquez, a special agent for the CSX Police.

The bills under consideration would require scrap yards to keep better records; records of the people selling scrap, their vehicles and pictures of the metal being sold. The most controversial bill would make scrap yards pay by check, money order or debit card instead of cash. They would be required to wait three days to pay a seller for frequently stolen items such as copper wire or air conditioners. The scrap industry says that would be cumbersome and cost them a lot of money

A representative from one metal recycling firm showed lawmakers a small plastic bag full of electrical extension cords and pointed them out as an example.

"We would have to set this aside, this is probably worth six or seven dollars, wait three business days write a check or send it by ACH (electric funds transfer) to a bank account," said Bill Elson, chief counsel for Fritz Enterprises, a metal recycling company in Detroit.

But lawmakers also got an earful from people in law enforcement who said some scrap dealers are taking a lot of metal that is obviously stolen.

Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Dennis Doherty rapped off a list of some of the items that have been stolen and sold by thieves.

"Bleachers, brand new stadium bleachers from the high schools, railroad tracks. I see those cases all the time, mausoleum doors,"  said Doherty.

Doherty said under current laws it's almost impossible to get a conviction unless metal thieves are caught in the act.

"Do you know what the receipts say for railroad tracks? Five hundred pounds, Iron.  I can't prove somebody bought railroad tracks with a receipt that says five hundred pounds, iron," Doherty told lawmakers.

This is shaping up as a major battle between law enforcement and the scrap recyclers, an industry which has a powerful lobby.

The third of three committee meetings on the proposed bills will be held next week.  State Representative Rashida Tlaib, one of the legislation sponsors was hoping to move the bills to the full legislature before the summer break.  But some lawmakers think there are still many details to be ironed out so the issue very well could be pushed forward to the fall term.





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