Stateline Story

Copper Thefts Trigger Widespread Crackdown

  • July 13, 2007
  • By Kathleen Haughney

A Texas legislator made headlines this week for shooting a man allegedly stealing copper pipes from a new home the lawmaker is constructing. Copper theft is so rampant that 20 states - including Texas - passed laws this year to try to squelch shady scrap-metal sales.

As the value of copper, aluminum and other scrap metals has risen in the past two years, so have complaints from homeowners and businesses about gutters stolen, air conditioners torn apart and cars tampered with by criminals seeking to salvage the metal and earn some quick cash. More than half of the states considered legislation this year to combat the reselling of stolen metals, according to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries , an industry trade group.

Starting Sept. 1, Alabama will ban cash sales of scrap metal that total more than $100 and will require anyone selling scrap metal to provide a government-issued identification card and other contact information.

State Rep. Randy Wood (R) sponsored the legislation after hearing from a local pastor whose church's five air conditioners were torn apart. The thieves removed copper wiring from the units, inflicting $23,000 in damages.

"It made me sick," said the Rev. Rick Reaves, pastor of the Hill Crest Baptist Church in Anniston, who is looking into security measures to stop thieves from striking again.

Wood said he's "just hoping and praying this just slows down things a bit."

Washington state's new law makes a connection between rising scrap-metal thefts and illegal drug use. The law, which takes effect July 22, makes it a misdemeanor for any scrap-metal dealer to knowingly do business with a person who has been convicted of theft or crimes involving methamphetamine, an often-homemade, highly addictive drug also known as meth and crank.

The law also demands more accountability from those purchasing copper. Businesses must obtain the seller's driver's license number, cell phone number, home address, and the description and license number of the seller's vehicle.

State Sen. Janéa Holmquist (R) said that police records showed that many of those accused of stealing copper or other scrap metal were involved with drugs.

"This still might not be the silver bullet, but it's a step in the right direction," she said.

Steve Hirsch, director of state and local programs for the scrap recycling institute, said the trade group has been working with states to craft legislation to discourage scrap-metal theft without imposing onerous rules on dealers. The group also recommends a set of best practices to protect dealers from buying stolen goods, such as avoiding cash payments, making video recordings of transactions and dealing only with known sources.

"Our members are very concerned because when people look to steal scrap metal, our members are often victims as well. Any number of our members have reported thefts from their own facilities," Hirsch said.

Texas' copper-theft law was not yet in effect when state Rep. Borris Miles (D) on July 8

reported finding two men cutting and stripping out copper tubing from his new home under construction in Houston. Miles, who was working at the house, shot and wounded one of the men, who allegedly threw a pocketknife at Miles.

Houston police Capt. Ceaser Moore said scrap-metal theft is such a growing problem that a police officer is assigned to monitor 114 scrap yards. He said he has seen prices go as low as 69 cents to as high as $4 a pound.

Houston-based scrap-metal dealer Don Buntin said Texas' new law made a little nervous at first. But after talking with police, he said he now thinks it may benefit him because it will put the most strain on smaller dealers who might buy from less-reliable sources. He currently is buying copper for about $3 a pound, compared to about $1.50 two years ago.

According to the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and Stateline.org reporting, states that enacted laws this year on scrap-metal theft are: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington and Virginia. The West Virginia Legislature also passed a bill, but it was vetoed by Gov. Joe Manchin (D).