District Attorney develops legislation to curb copper wire theft in Kansas
By Doug Rich
An effective and efficient statewide legislation is needed to curb the theft of copper wire and metal in Kansas. That was the consensus of a group of concerned business owners, farmers, and law enforcement officials who met with Sedgwick County District Attorney Mark Bennett on Oct. 16 in Wichita, Kan.
Bennett said the meeting included a representative from the state Insurance Commissioner’s office, law enforcement representatives, area farmers, county commissioners, city commissioners, a state senator, and others interested this issue. The purpose of the meeting was to see if there was local and regional support for a statewide effort to solve this problem. Bennett also reached out to scrap metal dealers to find out what they thought might be a workable solution.
“Ultimately I think we are going to need a statewide fix,” Bennett said. “If we fix things in Sedgwick County it does not do much lasting good because these guys can go next door to Sumner County or Reno County. We need to have a statewide approach.”
Prior to the meeting Bennett had his staff researched what other states have done to see what has worked and what has not worked. One possible solution was to only allow someone with a plumber’s license or similar license to sell copper wire. Bennett said the research showed that while this curtailed the problem for a while it mostly tripled the number of applications for a plumber’s licenses.
“It looks good on paper but that by itself it is not going to get the job done,” Bennett said.
Another possible solution that has been tried in other states is to have the person selling copper wire sign an affidavit stating where and when he took possession of the wire. No state, Kansas included, has enough money to hire investigators to go out and check the books at salvage yards to see if these affidavits are valid. Although filing false information is a felony in Kansas this is not considered a workable solution on a statewide level.
Something that has worked in other states and could work here in Kansas is simply taking a picture of the person who delivers copper wire or components to the salvage yard. Bennett said when this has been done in other states it had a tremendous effect on curtailing wire theft.
This has been extremely successful for law enforcement in South Carolina and New York. Bennett said his research showed that in 2011, one utility company alone reported 127 theft incidents but that number fell to 83 after it started photographing the sellers. The number incidents continued to drop in 2012 and 2013.
Bennett does not want to drive good salvage yards out of business. He said these businesses do a service for the community and no one wants to add another level of bureaucracy that will burden small businesses.
Bennett and his staff have a written a rough draft of potential legislation that would require salvage yards to photograph the seller and the metal they are selling. The legislation would include a slightly enhanced penalty for the theft of copper metal and wire.
“When you go to Topeka and start talking about the impact on bed space in the state’s prisons you undermine the potential support for your legislation so we are not going to make these capital murder type of crimes,” Bennett said.
Although it is not part of the proposed legislation, Bennett said authorities have talked about some way to track the sellers themselves. Texas has successfully used a database for this type of crime. But a database needs someone to maintain it. Which state agency would be charged with this duty would need to be decided by the Legislature.
“We have to be realistic on what we are asking for here,” Bennett said. “We need to target what we are looking for and find something that will make a substantive difference without requiring anyone to spend millions of dollars either on bed space or new investigators. I want effective and efficient legislation not just more legislation.”
Bennett and his staff are still collecting input but they hope to have something they can present to the legislature when the new session starts in January. If you would like to be part of this discussion you can contact Bennett by email at da@Sedgwick.gov or by phone at 1-800-432-6878.
Doug Rich can be reached by phone at 785-749-5304 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.