MONTPELIER — Legislation introduced last week in the Vermont House by Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, and two colleagues is intended to make it more difficult for those responsible for the many recent burglaries in Addison County and Vermont to dispose of stolen goods.
The law, which Sen. Claire Ayer, D-Addison County, said she will formally introduce in the Senate this week, would impose licensing and record-keeping requirements on Vermont pawnbrokers and “precious metal dealers,” require them to identify those who sell them items and keep that information on file, and require them to hold onto goods for six months before disposing of them.
All the information that the businesses gather on the goods they buy from citizens and on the sellers would have to be made available to law enforcement officials “at all reasonable times,” according to the legislation.
Lanpher’s House co-sponsors are Reps. Michael Yantacha of Charlotte and Herb Russell of Rutland, both Democrats. Lanpher said she and the other lawmakers have worked with representatives of Vermont State Police and the office of the Vermont Attorney General in crafting the legislation, and she is confident it will help.
In an email sent late last week, she was also at least cautiously optimistic it could pass during this legislative session.
“(The House) Judiciary (Committee) has already asked me to appear before them on Tuesday to present the bill. Many other drug issues are being discussed and the committee leadership is looking for my bill,” Lanpher wrote, adding, “It is an important tool for law enforcement. However, once the bill is brought forward many things can occur.”
The bill also includes a gun-control provision: It would require all “pawnbrokers and retail merchants dealing in firearms” to “keep a record book in which they shall record the sale by them of all revolvers and pistols, and the purchase by them of all secondhand revolvers and pistols.”
That record book would have to include identifying details of the firearms as well as the IDs, signatures and descriptions of purchasers, and enforcement officials would be allowed access to those records.
Lanpher said she did not expect the inclusion of this measure to stall the bill “at this time.”
One local law enforcement official said that part of the bill didn’t go far enough — Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel said, for example, sawed-off shotguns don’t appear to be covered.
“I would include in there all firearms, just because of the fact that somebody walks in with a firearm, where the hell did you get the firearm?” Merkel said. “It needs to be a little stronger.”
Generally, however, Merkel reacted positively to the bill’s attempts to attack the problem of home thefts, most of which law enforcement says are drug-related, from the fencing end.
“I’m in favor of it … We need to try to take all the loopholes out, as many as we can,” he said.
But Merkel said the law, if adopted, would only be as good as its enforcement.
“If we are going to enact a regulation like this … we need to be ready to put the teeth behind this,” he said.
VSP Senior Trooper Benjamin Katz, who consulted with lawmakers as they drafted the bill, is confident it will have a positive effect.
“There’s absolutely no question this bill will be a huge help to law enforcement agencies in the state in recovering stolen property,” Katz said.
Katz also pointed out that it is a federal offense for thieves to cross state lines with stolen goods, and that many criminals lack the resources to travel to and find fences in other states.
Ultimately, Katz said, the bill would help police perform what he thinks should be their most important job after break-ins.
“The number one goal should be to return stolen property,” he said.
The proposed bill would require licenses for all pawnbrokers and “precious metal dealers” who purchase or sell “$50,000 or more of used precious metal, coins, jewelry, or similar items” a year.
License applications would have to include information on crimes of which any business owner or employee has been convicted. Applications would be denied if certain convictions were discovered in a background check, including for a felony, petit larceny or receipt of stolen property.
Licenses could also be revoked for such offenses committed by a business owner or employee.
The law would also require businesses to provide a statement of the amount paid for the items, and a photograph or video and description of the items, plus a record of the address, phone number, license plate and ID card of the seller.
If a business buys or sells $50,000 or more of goods in a year, those records would have to be computerized.
Those records would also have to be made readily available to law enforcement.
Pawnbrokers would also be forbidden to resell “pawned or pledged property” for six months, to accept pawned goods from minors without written permission from parents or guardians, or to pay for pawned property in cash.
Pawnbrokers and precious metal dealers would also be required to report certain “suspicious activity” under the proposed law. That activity is defined as one transaction in excess of $1,000, multiple deals in a month totaling more than $1,000, or more than five deals “with one person within a five-day time period regardless of the total loan or purchase price.”
Violations of the law would be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 for a first offense and up to $10,000 for repeat offenses.
The law would also create a “Judicial Bureau” within the Judicial Branch to oversee the regulations.
Lanpher said she and her fellow lawmakers worked to ensure the regulations weren’t too burdensome for small businesses. They recruited Ferrisburgh’s Greg Hamilton, owner of Stone Block Antiques in Vergennes and the president of the Vermont Antiques Dealers Association, to help out.
Hamilton has traveled to Montpelier to testify and said he was successful in having antiques dealers removed from earlier drafts of the law. Scrap metal dealers were also removed in the process.
Hamilton said most antiques are traceable items obtained from families; the sellers are known and the goods are not typically like those taken in home or car break-ins.
“Most of the stuff I buy is from people’s houses when their mother has passed away. I know where it comes from,” he said.
Hamilton called the law “way better than it was,” but remains concerned with the record-keeping elements in the regulations. He and other antique dealers typically handle enough estate jewelry or silver goods (many of which have more melt value than in as-is condition, he said), and will be subject to licensing and computerization requirements.
“I do have issues with the whole idea … Basically they’re treating every transaction like a crime,” he said. “It just seems like a lot of guilty-until-proven-innocent, and I have a bit of a hard time with that. Nobody except the criminal element wants to buy and sell stolen goods, and the criminal element will continue to do it.”
Still, on balance, Hamilton will not oppose the law.
“It does give the police the teeth,” he said, adding, “I guess I can live with it the way I’m reading it right now.”
Two with fewer reservations are Weybridge couple Jan Albers and Paul Monod. Thieves broke into their home in November 2011 and made off with jewelry, a computer and many other items.
Albers and Monod worked with VSP to recover some of their possessions from Chittenden County businesses, some of which they said were less than ethical and at least one of which went above and beyond the call of duty and provided information that helped lead to arrests.
Ultimately, a frustrating process led to the return of some, but far from all, of their property.
“It was clear to us that dealers have a very good nose for stolen goods,” Albers said in an email. “As one said, ‘I’m always suspicious when I have a young woman come in to try to sell me something and I can see her boyfriend hanging around the car in my parking lot. Why isn’t he coming in, too?’ Some dealers care if the goods are stolen, some don’t. Some suddenly care when the heat starts to be turned up on them.”
Monod noted in an email that one store the thieves did business with paid with checks, and when prodded the owner produced documents that also helped lead to the arrests. He said he likes “the general intentions of this law as well as many of the details. It makes sense to license pawnbrokers and to require them to keep better records.” But he is concerned that if the law is “too burdensome to dealers, it will drive fencing even further underground and make it harder to trace goods.”
But the alternative, Monod wrote, is worse:
“The present situation is awful, and it may actually encourage theft. The police do not have the time to track down fenced goods, the dealers can easily hide what they have acquired and the thieves do not have to worry much about being traced. Our thieves did not worry at all about taking checks from a dealer that were made out to their names. Any changes to the law that might make it easier to follow the path of stolen goods would be welcome.”
And Albers agreed.
“Anything that discourages dealers from fencing stolen goods by making it harder for them to ‘play dumb’ is a step in the right direction,” she wrote. “I hope this passes into law.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.