Metal thefts a public risk

Nighttime youth baseball games at a sports complex in south Tacoma were canceled last week. The reason: Thieves ripped out copper wiring and left two of the six fields without power.

The thieves tore out 4,500 feet of wire to salvage for a quick - albeit illegal - profit.

It's not just the loss of wire and other scrap metal that's at play here. It's the damage done by the thieves. For example, in March last year four thieves stole $190,000 worth of wire from a railroad company in Grant County but did an estimated $280,000 in damage during the theft.

Scrap metal thieves across this state have become more brazen in their quest to make a fast buck. Items such as catalytic converters on vehicles, cases from headstones and mausoleums, wire from construction sites, and manhole covers are stolen or damaged by thieves. In many cases, the scrap metal is melted down to facilitate its sale. Cops say the thieves are using their ill--gotten gains to purchase drugs.

The good news is that the state Legislature is on top of this emerging problem, and Gov. Chris Gregoire has signed Senate Bill 5312 into law.

SB 5312 redefines the term "recycler" and requires all recyclers to record every transaction. The records are open to inspection by law enforcement officers.

The primary advantage of Senate Bill 5312 is that it takes away the cash nature of most metal recycling transactions.

Customers must produce a driver's license and the amount and kind of salvaged material must be logged. Instead of being handed cash, as is the current practice, any transaction above $30 will handled through a check. Metal recyclers are going to have to wait for their money, and in the interim, law enforcement officers will be able to check to see whether the goods have been stolen.

No doubt, the new law shifts a burden to those who recycle scrap metal. It makes it a crime to accept metal where someone has removed or altered a make, model or serial number, personal identification number or identifying marks.

Rep. Dawn Morrell, D-Puyallup, a prime supporter of the new law, said scrap metal theft is "a huge, expensive bother." It's also a public safety issue. As Morrell noted, "We risk our lives on the train when they steal the switches."

SB 5312 should be effective because it dries up the market for stolen goods. The fact that thieves can have jail time added to their sentence if they endanger public safety also should serve as a deterrent.