In 2007, House Criminal Jurisprudence Chairman Aaron Peña pushed through legislation to make theft of any amount of copper, aluminum or bronze a state jail felony, regardless of the value of the stolen property. Peña argued the epidemic of metal thefts constituted a special case, and the so-called "enhancement" (a legislative euphemism for criminal penalty increases) would deter thieves by making them "think twice" about the consequences.
From 2005 to 2007, metal thefts in Dallas jumped 227 percent.
In 2006, Dallas police reported 2,415 metal thefts. In 2007, they reported 3,339. And through the first three months of this year, police reported 691.
Meanwhile, thefts across North Texas cost Oncor Electric Delivery about $1 million in losses last year, company spokeswoman Carol Peters said. Various deterrents, including increased surveillance, seem to have slowed the crimes, though the company still estimates $250,000 in theft-related losses so far this year, she said.
"It continues to be an issue," Ms. Peters said. "Obviously there can be an outage involved. It's a huge safety issue. The perpetrator is risking his or her life stealing wire if it's live." ...
While the market price of copper fluctuates on a daily basis, it has risen almost 18 percent since the beginning of the year, closing at $3.61 per pound Friday. The loads sellers bring to recycling yards vary from a few pounds to a few hundred pounds of metals, police say.
For the victims, the cost can be more devastating than the price it yields for thieves.
John Davis, a Lake Highlands dentist, said he has lost five air-conditioning units in the last six months.
"Everything short of having an armed guard in the back alley is not working," Dr. Davis said. He estimates that he has spent $15,000 to $20,000 to replace the units and two stolen security cameras, as well as to add welded cages around the remaining air-conditioning units.
Now we know that theory doesn't work. Most metal thieves are homeless people, addicts, and others with little to lose. As I've wondered previously, "If someone is a) uneducated, and b) willing to risk their lives, why would legislators think jacking up the penalty to a felony (as opposed to more vigorously enforcing misdemeanor statutes), would do anything but give them 'three hots and a cot' for a longer period on the taxpayers' dime?"
Rather than help solve the problem of metal thievery, more thefts occurred since the new statute was enacted. IMO that's because the idea behind the law was based on a flawed economic model: That penalties are a "cost" for offenders, so raising it reduces crime by raising the price paid for committing it. When you're homeless and so desperate you're willing to risk electrocution to steal a $50 worth of copper wire, that economic model collapses. No can provide incentives strong enough to counter starvation.
This is a circumstance where changing tactics is more important than changing laws. What's really needed is better enforcement against the handful of recycling businesses that purchase scrap metal, a much more accessible target that's more likely to comply with the laws if they're enforced. Earlier this year, a comment at the User Forum on the DA Association's website described a strategy used in Houston that seems more likely to yield results:
Undercover police officers would go to scrap metal dealers posing as employees of an air conditioning company. They told the operators of several scrap metal places that they wanted to sell the coils from air conditioning units. But, they would ask if the dealer ever did business with the company that hey "purportedly" worked for. They didn't want someone from their company or their boss to show up while they were trying to sell the coils. They made it clear that they were stealing the coils from their employer and wanted cash for the copper in the coils. All of this was recorded. They wouldn''t arrest anyone at that time but just sell them the coils. After they visited several places on more than one occasion each selling "stolen" coils to them the officers then met with me and I drafted search warrants of each location for documentation of the purchase of the items. Texas law requires that they document the purchases. In every purchase, the owners of the scrap metal dealership would fill out a receipt, as required by Texas law, but they put in phony names and dates, which we could substantiate from the taped recordings of the purchase.If recyclers won't purchase stolen scrap metal, thieves will stop stealing it. Simple as that. There was no sense in increasing penalties for metal thieves, and doing so hasn't reduced crime nearly as much as it would just to enforce existing, un-"enhanced" laws against scrap metal dealers.