Florida lawmakers pass metal-theft bill amid public safety concerns

Mar 13, 2012

The following article was published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel on March 13, 2012:

Florida lawmakers pass metal-theft bill amid public safety concerns

By Juan Ortega

The death of a South Florida woman served as a catalyst to bolster the state’s metal-theft laws.

In September, Thelma Morrow was killed in a crash along a darkened street, left that way by thieves who stripped copper from Miami streetlights. The driver who hit her told police the light outages helped make the crash difficult to avoid.

State legislators, citing her death, now have approved a bill that enhances criminal penalties against thieves and corrupt recyclers

Morrow’s death “spawned us into action, because her life was so tragically taken,” said Sen. Chris Smith, D-Fort Lauderdale, who co-sponsored the bill. “It lit the fire under us to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”

Legislators are sending the bill to Gov. Rick Scott, who is expected to sign it. The law would take effect July 1.

Morrow’s sister, Ethel Morrow Dandy, 62, said she was grateful the measure was approved.

“She had to die an untimely death because of those copper-wire thieves,” Dandy said. “This law will make a difference.”

The theft of utility wires already was a misdemeanor, but now such metal thievery would be a first-degree felony. “You’re going to spend some time behind bars for doing this,” Smith said.

The bill also would tighten restrictions on scrap-metal yards statewide. If buying stolen property is made riskier for scrap-yard dealers, the reasoning goes, it will cut off the demand side of the illicit business.

The bill prohibits buying 17 metal items often targeted for theft, things like manhole covers, backflow valves, coils from air conditioners and utility light poles, wires and fixtures. People selling to dealers must prove ownership or show they are authorized to sell the metals.

And dealers must pay by check for the items, an extra hurdle if you’re seeking quick money.

Dealers intentionally ignoring inspection requirements would face a third-degree felony. Recyclers with three or more offenses would be charged with a first-degree felony.

Backers of the measure said it only should affect dealers who who turn a blind eye to the illegal source of items offered for sale.

“It’s the ones that aren’t legit who are going to have serious problems trying to comply,” said Keyna Cory, coordinator of Floridians for Copper and Metal Theft Crime Prevention, a coalition of industry organizations.

Smith said the metal-theft bill is the first one increasing criminal penalties co-sponsored by him.

But it “was worth it in this case,” he said after he heard from countless metal-theft victims in South Florida and learned of Morrow’s death.

Morrow’s sister said she wished the bill would have been approved “a long time ago, before it cost someone’s life.”

Dandy said she and her family plan to visit Morrow’s gravesite in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, her sister’s birthday. Morrow would have turned 53.

“We truly miss her,” Dandy said.

Find this article here:  http://www.sun-sentinel.com/news/broward/fort-lauderdale/fl-metal-theft-bill-passes-20120312,0,842566.story