Manatee County needs stronger rules on pawned goods to fight property crimes

January 17, 2014 

Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald

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Manatee County commissioners have an opportunity to enhance crime fighting this month by advancing an ordinance proposal that would help solve thefts, impede trafficking in stolen property and return goods to their owners. We support Sheriff Brad Steube’s bid to convince commissioners that more restrictive regulations addressing secondhand goods dealers are vital.

This issue is not new, bubbling to the surface in the aftermath of the brutal 2009 murder of Kathleen Briles in her Terra Ceia home. Her husband, Dr. James Briles, visited several hundred pawn shops across the region in a mostly fruitless effort to locate some of the $40,000 worth of property that was stolen. He only recovered one necklace.

Dr. Briles then went on a laudable quest to secure a new state law for a database and additional documentation. But the bid fell short during the 2011 session of the Legislature when both House and Senate bills, sponsored by Manatee County lawmakers, died in committees.

The political climate at the time — with legislators bent on downsizing government and reducing regulations — proved fatal to a stiffer state law. But had the Briles family been able to access a digital database back then, the perpetrator could have been arrested quicker than the months that it actually took — time in which the now convicted killer committed other crimes.

While the vast majority of pawn shops and other secondhand dealers conduct business in an honesty and law-abiding manner, the gist of this vexing problem lies elsewhere.

Those business owners are already required by law to collect information from sellers, including a thumb print, name and address of the seller and a detailed written description of the goods sold. But they only check the seller’s identification card.

The current weak law pales in comparison with the possibilities thanks to today’s technology. A digital database of pawned property searchable by law enforcement would hasten recoveries and arrests.

Sheriff Steube also proposes an ordinance that requires secondhand stores to shoot images of both the seller and the person’s ID card, far better than a written general description. Other provisions call for holding goods on the premises twice as long as now, to 30 days, and payments to sellers would have to be by check for items sold in one day worth more than $100, thus creating a paper trail that cash cannot yield.

Pictures are worth a thousand words, and written descriptions, even detailed, are worthless when the goods are plain and ordinary — like a gold chain. Crime victims cannot possibly identify their property based on those terms. But an image posted on the Internet would solve that.

Understandably, the pawn shop industry lacks enthusiasm to participate in this worthwhile crime-fighting work — over the time and expense. Some, though, already photograph sellers and goods, and kudos to those businesses. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office is revising its proposal to only apply to jewelry, electronics and household appliances, the high value goods that criminals seek the most. This should make an ordinance more palatable to pawn shops.

The sheriff’s office examined other counties’ regulations in order to develop the most comprehensive ordinance proposal, adopting strict provisions from Sarasota County regulations. Currently, Sarasota burglars and thieves cross the county line to pawn stolen goods in Manatee. This creates the need for a two-county approach to property crimes.

We’d like to see regional unity, with the Tampa Bay region and Southwest Florida counties all joining in a concerted bid to combat these crimes. But the most effective strategy would be a state law similar to the one that Dr. Briles advocated.

In the meantime, Manatee County commissioners should act now. They would be wise to adopt the sheriff’s crime-fighting proposal and align Manatee with Sarasota. A public hearing on the draft ordinance is on Jan. 28. We recommend the citizens speak up in support of this proposal.

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