RALEIGH — A bill to stem the epidemic of copper thefts only needs Gov. Bev. Perdue’s signature to become law.
“There is copper theft going on all over the state,” said state Rep. G.L. Pridgen, who worked as point man in the House to get The Metal Theft Prevention Act of 2012 approved by the General Assembly. “… I have constituents whose property has been destroyed and left uninhabitable due to thieves destroying the home to get to the copper wiring and aluminum products. They tear down Sheetrock, remove appliances, air condition units, etc. You name it, they take it and leave a shell.”
The bi-partisan supported bill was passed in the House on Monday by a vote of 110 to 2. It passed a few days earlier in the Senate 48 to zero, according to Pridgen, whose district includes Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties.
Copper theft is a growing problem in Robeson County, as thieves vandalize homes and businesses to pry the metal to sell to be recycled. The price of copper has climbed steadily in recent years.
“The property damage to homes and businesses is in the tens of thousands of dollars for small amounts of copper,” Pridgen said. “Homes must be repaired at considerable cost after thieves break in, and in many instances if the house is vacant insurance will not cover the damage.”
Pridgen said he began researching copper thefts after being contacted by individuals, law enforcement officers and business owners about the problem. He worked with representatives of utility companies, law enforcement officers, scrap metal dealers and recycling companies and district attorneys to determine what tools are needed to deter the crime and ensure the apprehension and conviction of those stealing, selling and purchasing the metal.
“I applaud Rep. Pridgen for his hard work on this serious issue that is not only affecting our community, but communities across the entire state,” Fairmont police Maj. David Windom said in a statement. “The Metal Theft Prevention Act will give the law enforcement community a much needed tool and a new approach in dealing with what has been a tough problem for law enforcement in recent years.”
Pridgen said the bill can be tweaked later if needed.
Pridgen said that a strength of the bill is that it provides for theft charges to be based not only on the cost of metal stolen, but on damages inflicted on property during the theft.
“Someone may get $50 worth of copper but do $50,000 worth of damage getting it,” he said. “Now district attorneys have the ability to charge for all of the damages … charges are going from a misdemeanor to a felony.”
The bill also specifies penalties for those scrap metal and recycling operators that fail to record all of the required information concerning their purchase of metal.
“If they do not get all of the information, they can be charged with a misdemeanor,” Pridgen said. “If they constantly violate the law they can have their permit is pulled.”
Pridgen said it will now be harder for someone selling copper to get “fast cash.”
“You can’t get cash now when you sell copper,” he said. “Those buying the copper have to purchase it by writing a check.”
If Perdue signs the bill, it becomes law Oct. 1.
Staff writer Abbi Overfelt contributed to this story.