A little-known law is getting a lot of attention lately when it comes to copper theft. Law enforcement officials say it's not a cure-all, but it does give authorities something to work with.
"I think it's a strong tool. It's not perfect, but it's one we have to use until legislators see fit to pass something better," Orangeburg County Sheriff Leroy Ravenell said. "It's something we're using to be proactive."
Under the state law, a person must have a permit to transport significant amounts of non-ferrous metals.
This particular law defines non-ferrous metal as any metal that does not contain significant amounts of iron or steel, such as "copper wire, copper clad steel wire, copper pipe, copper bars, copper sheeting, aluminum, a product that is a mixture of aluminum and copper, catalytic converters and stainless steel beer kegs or containers."
Bottom line, if there's 25 pounds or more of copper being transported in your vehicle and you have no permit, you'll be charged.
Ravenell says the law's been on the books, but now it's being used properly.
"One of the things I looked at with the thefts going on with the farmers with their irrigation systems and homeowners' air conditioners, we had to come up with something to use," the sheriff said.
Most of the charges made in Orangeburg County under the law are the result of safety checkpoints conducted over the past month. Ravenell says the safety checkpoints have been placed "between the buyers and the sellers."
The checkpoints have resulted in 38 arrests, including eight individual counts under the metal transportation law, the sheriff said. One man arrested in a March 15 checkpoint was driving a dump truck loaded with metal.
According to the FBI, the price of copper has steadily increased since 2003. China's and India's growing economies have fueled that price increase.
The FBI calls copper theft a threat to public safety. It cited, among other things, sirens that failed to activate in Jackson, Miss., three years ago when a tornado hit.
Locally, cellphone towers, agricultural irrigation systems, utility poles, manufactured home wiring and hundreds of air conditioners have been destroyed or hauled off.
Under the law, an individual moving any amount of copper exceeding 25 pounds needs a permit from the sheriff's office. There are a few exceptions, such as for service personnel like electricians who typically carry supplies of copper in their vehicles.
To get a permit, an individual can call or stop by the sheriff's office where they are required to provide their name, address and telephone number. Some counties also require a license tag number. The permit is then valid for the next 48 hours.
Ravenell said he's issued about 31 permits since he took office in mid-February, "which shows you right there people want to do the right thing. They just want direction."
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe said it's difficult to craft the perfect law to fight copper theft. For instance, it's difficult to prove that copper tubing found in the back of a vehicle belongs to a particular residence or business.
But until legislators come up with something different, the metal transportation law can be effective, the solicitor says.
"What I like about it is it's an enhancing statute," Pascoe said. "The more times you get charged, the penalty goes up."
The fine for violating the law starts at $200 or a 30-day jail sentence. The fines go up from there on subsequent offenses. A third or greater offense can result in a $1,000 fine and three years in jail.
Ravenell said the statute also lists aluminum, but the focus of law enforcement is not people selling cans picked up along the road.
"The law is the law, it covers aluminum also," he said. "It takes a lot of cans to make 25 pounds. We're definitely not trying to stop people from making an honest dollar picking up aluminum cans."
At 31.3 cans per pound, it would take roughly 775 cans to make the 25-pound limit.
However, the law doesn't address vehicles moving less than the 25 pounds.
It's not perfect, in other words.
Joe Rich owns Sunshine Recycling just outside Orangeburg. Rich's solution to the problem is simple: "Don't steal at all."
"If it's stolen, don't bring it by here," Rich said. "We're going to ask you questions, we're going to inform law enforcement and get you arrested, if we can."
Rich suggests air conditioning installers offer an identity package called DataDots, which are microscopic dots spray-painted onto copper tubing so it can be traced.
"We've donated $10,000 to local churches and businesses for Data Dot systems," Rich said.
As the solicitor and president of the Solicitor's Association, Pascoe said he's working with Rep. Harry Ott, D-St. Matthews, to hammer out a better bill for more results.
The bill would require anyone selling copper to obtain a license from their sheriff's department. The license will be valid for one year.
Pascoe said elements of the bill would make it illegal for anyone to buy copper unless they verify that the person selling has a valid license to sell.
"The idea is that thieves won't get the license so they won't be able to sell," Pascoe said. "If they use third parties to sell for them, then the sheriff's department will be in the loop on who is obtaining licenses."
Lawmakers are also considering requiring payments be made only by check.
And the current metals transportation law will be amended to require a permit to transport more than 10 pounds of nonferrous metal, Pascoe said.
"I'm very confident that by the end of the legislative session, we'll have tougher laws and tougher penalties," he said.
While new laws are smoothed out, Rich says his employees will continue to take down license plate numbers and driver's license numbers, and take photos of sellers and their vehicles.
In the business for more than 15 years, Rich said recyclers have taken a black eye in the public's mind when it comes to copper theft. And he said it's deserved, in some cases, since some recyclers do little or nothing to discourage theft.
"How do you think the plant manager feels when I handle hundreds of thousands of pounds of metal for him and they have their church's air conditioner taken?" he said, adding he'll continue to hand over any camera footage or license numbers to investigators.
Meantime, deputies will set up the safety checkpoints looking for copper transporters.
"These efforts are going to continue," Ravenell said. "We're going to continue concentrating on people causing $30,000 in damage and just getting $75 or $100."
To obtain a permit for Orangeburg County, contact the OCSO at 803-534-3550.
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