Politics & Government

Scrap-metal theft conviction would draw prison time under new bill

Kansas lawmakers considered a bill Tuesday that would toughen punishments for scrap metal theft amid an exponential rise in the crime statewide.

Millions of dollars in damage is being done to Kansas businesses and homes each year by thieves looking for scrap metal, law enforcement officials and representatives of utilities testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The number of reported thefts of metal in the state jumped to 1,404 in 2012 from less than 400 in 2009, while the estimated value of the stolen goods reached $2.7 million in 2012 from $500,000 in 2009, Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Kirk Thompson said. That data does not include crimes committed in Topeka and Kansas City, he said, but it shows a clear trend.

The price of copper reached $3 per pound last year.

Farm communities have been increasingly victimized by scrap theft, said Kent Winter, a member of the Kansas Farm Bureau from Sedgwick County. In the process of stealing copper wiring and piping from agricultural equipment, thieves often do thousands of dollars in damage and can disable vital machines for weeks, he said.

Law enforcement agencies previously viewed scrap theft as an urban issue but now see it as a statewide crisis, said Ed Klumpp, legislative committee chairman for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police.

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, R-Nickerson, criticized the bill, saying its proposed punishments are excessive. The bill would make scrap theft a Level 5 felony, meaning first-time offenders would face 11 to 34 months in jail while repeat offenders could face more than 11 years behind bars. Bruce called such punishment “ridiculously high.”

Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County district attorney, defended the stiffening of charges, saying that one of the goals is to get convicted scrap thieves off the street, whereas current sentences release thieves on probation on their first two convictions.

The bill also would set up a database that would help law enforcement agencies track metal transactions by scrap dealers and recycling centers and require those companies to pay an annual licensing fee of $500 to $1,500 per business location. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt could suspend or revoke licenses from companies that sell stolen materials.