Clamp down on metal thieves

Among the new laws on tap to be considered this year by Oregon legislators are efforts to rein in metal thieves.

Though local police officials say metal theft is somewhat down right now because of slumping metal prices, we suspect it will be only a matter of time before everything from power lines to guard rails will once again be potential targets for those with bad habits and sticky fingers.

Thieves have ranged into areas that might have been sacrosanct a few years ago. In November someone stole a bronze statue weighing nearly 300 pounds from the University of Oregon. People have stolen metal grave markers and other items from cemeteries around the state. A recycling plant in Bend located the destroyed remains of a bronze Sacagawea statue stolen from Fort Clatsop in January 2008, which led to four arrests.

Victims of metal theft often have to pay substantially more than the actual loss they incur simply to repair the damage. For instance, it might cost 10 times more to replace an electrical line than the stolen cable or wire was actually worth. It’s a major problem, as farmers, loggers and other victims in our area can attest.

It’s high time to do more about it.

We understand we are not he first to say that. Oregon passed laws in 2007 that made metal theft a felony and required recyclers to make a copy of a valid photo ID from all sellers, maintain video surveillance and keep a record of sales for one year.

But California and the state of Washington have passed more restrictive laws aimed at metal thieves, and that makes Oregon a more attractive destination for those looking to steal.

California requires recyclers and scrap metal dealers to report daily not only the metals that have come in but who the sellers were. Scrap metal buyers are required to check photo IDs of sellers, take a thumbprint and delay payment for three days.

In Washington, buyers must maintain records about sellers and transactions for at least a year, and cannot make cash payments of more than $30, with payments delayed for at least 10 days.

People concerned with the problem in Oregon are suggesting we need similarly stiff laws. Some suggest aligning our laws with Washington’s to control cross-state theft and sales.

We know that the primary reason why metal thefts is such a problem is methamphetamine abuse. Addicts have to feed their habits and metal, particularly when the prices are high, is an easy way to get some quick cash at less risk than other options.

Suggested solutions include requiring recyclers to pay sellers with a check that is held for 10 days before being mailed to a physical address. The delay removes the instant gratification of cash and the actual address gives police one more way to catch a suspected thief.

Some advocate making all metal thefts felonies, categorizing them as aggravated criminal mischief under Measure 57 and imposing harsher sentences. Other proposals would require documentation to transport metal on public streets and creating a “do not buy” list for certain metals.

Critics say these measures won’t solve the problem because thieves will just use intermediaries to provide buffers between themselves and the cops – or they’ll be driven underground. Some are concerned that such proposals could cost the state and recyclers a lot of money.

Well, metal theft is already costing the state a lot of money. We don’t want to see legitimate businesses taking it in the shorts, but something has to be done. Crooks are generally practical. If the target is easy and lucrative in one location, why go elsewhere?

It’s up to us to figure out how to make Oregon as inhospitable as possible to any illegitimate metal sales. Yes, it might be costly up front, but the savings and peace of mind that well-considered laws bring will far outweigh that price of making it happen.