In their zeal to curb metal thievery, some local
police departments may be taking their responsibility to
enforce the law to excess.
A case in point Police in Knoxville, Tenn., carried
out a "sting" operation several weeks ago in which they
ultimately netted two scrap dealers for what might be called
At Rimmer Brothers Recycling, an undercover officer
offered to sell some copper scrap to the scrapyard. The amount
offered was so small that it netted him a little more than a
dollar. In Knoxville, however, scrapyards are required to take
the seller's name and address and mail him a check for the
metals five days after the purchase.
In this instance, says owner Bob Rimmer, he decided
it was a bit over the top to cut a check for $1.15 and drop it
in the mail, so he reached into the till and paid the seller in
cash. That's when the police swarmed the yard. Now, Rimmer
says, it's fingerprints, mug shots and a trip to court. "They
told us we could face jail time and a $2,500 fine," he
All for $1.15 worth of copper.
Rimmer's company has been in business in Knoxville
for 57 years, paying taxes, providing jobs and recycling scrap
that might otherwise be discarded along highways. His company
was one of two Knoxville yards nabbed that day for not
following the law.
At the other facility, an employee forgot to take
the seller's thumbprint as required by state law, and also paid
cash for the copper. In all, seven scrapyards were targeted by
the sting operation. The police focused only on those yards
that offer what the scrap industry calls retail service. In
other words, anyone with scrap to sell can walk through the
gates and ask someone in the yard to buy what he has.
It should be noted that in the past year, when
metals prices were soaring into the stratosphere, thieves were
hard at work taking everything copper downspouts, highway guard
rails, even brass memorial plates bolted to gravestones. In
Russia, a gang of thieves cut an iron bridge apart at night and
hauled it away.
That was then.
Now, according to one of the investigators from the
East Tennessee Scrap Metal Intelligence Network, metal thefts
in the City of Knoxville are down 81 percent compared with a
year ago. Lower metals prices probably had a lot to do with
that decline, he conceded to a TV news reporter.
Ironically, the same week the East Tennessee Scrap
Metal Intelligence team was busting Rimmer and another
Knoxville scrap dealer, police and scrap companies in Georgia
were working hand-in-hand to nail a thief who had swiped two
coils of copper from an electric utility's warehouse. Those
coils were worth a bit more than $1.15. In this case, local
police credited the Middle Georgia Metal Theft Committee for
playing a key role in catching the alleged thief. The committee
is an alliance of recyclers, law enforcement officers and other
local businesses whose goal is to reduce metal thefts in the
While it's true that a theft is a theft whether
it's a dime or millions of dollars, it's also true that the
enforcement of these new metals theft laws and ordinances has
been uneven in more than a few cities.
Most scrap processors have agreed to abide by the
various provisions of the laws requiring them to keep records
of all sales, take photos of the scrap metals purchased from a
peddler, obtain names and addresses and even take thumb prints.
Occasionally, some may take a bag of empty soda cans from a
peddler and hand over a couple of bucks. In truth, a fair
number of the folks that show up at a scrapyard with metals to
sell have no address to mail a check to.
The only stumbling block to the new rules has been
the demand by city councils and state lawmakers that the scrap
dealers keep the acquired metals for a period ranging between
10 and 20 days. Metal prices can plunge sharply in a day or
two, not to mention a week or more. Also, holding metals that
come in each day for such periods would require many yards to
purchase more land and build another warehouse.
Scrap companies have learned not to leave metals
like copper sitting outdoors in a roll-off container. It isn't
just the unoccupied house, churches and graveyards that have
been plundered by thieves. Some are cognizant of the same logic
of the quote often attributed to famed bank robber Willie "The
Actor" Sutton when asked why he robbed banks. That's were the
money is, he replied. The same is true for scrap metals like
copper and brass. If thieves can't steal from the power company
or a plumber, they'll hit a scrapyard.
Scrap processors have spoken out against such
rules, but a U.S. appellate court ruled last year that a
tag-and-hold law in Memphis doesn't pose an undue burden on the
city's scrap metal processors.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries (ISRI),
which joined the federal court battle by filing an amicus
curiae (friend of the court) brief on the side of the Tennessee
Recycling Association, may have said it best. The tag-and-hold
clause of the Memphis ordinance amounts to "local regulatory
Sadly for small scrap dealers, the tag-and-hold
clause isn't the only form of overkill they must contend with
these days. In more than a few towns and cities, there may be a
few enthusiastic cops looking to bust any scrap dealer who
forgot to ask for a peddler's thumbprint.