COLUMN: Party time for B.C. metal thieves

The B.C. government is looking for new ways to stop the rampant theft and sale of metal and other valuables, after a court ruled municipalities can’t require second-hand and scrap dealers to record the identities of sellers and turn the information over to police.

New Westminster’s bylaw was overturned last year by the B.C. Court of Appeal, after a pawnshop challenged it with the aid of the always helpful B.C. Civil Liberties Association. (Whether you’re a tree-sitter or a pole-climber looking for copper phone wires, it seems the BCCLA’s got your back).

The three-judge panel ruled unanimously that B.C.’s Community Charter and Local Government Act doesn’t give cities authority to require second-hand dealers to collect personal information on sellers. The guy with the steady supply of spare Skilsaws doesn’t have to suffer invasion of privacy by showing his ID. Invasion of your garage is another matter.

B.C. Public Safety Minister John Les says it’s “unfortunate” this court decision came up just as municipalities were getting protections in place. Telus was recently hit three times in the Lower Mainland, on three consecutive days, suggesting a roving gang at work. Phone service, including 911 service, was lost to about 1,000 homes. Shawn Hall of Telus says they had 58 cable thefts last year and a dozen so far in 2008. Utilities have been seeing a growing problem on Vancouver Island and were urging communities there to get tough like Metro suburbs.

New Westminster cops have lately resorted to sting operations, using undercover officers to sell scrap metal, jewelry and bicycles at suspect locations. Council pulled the business licence of one shop in January as police recommended criminal charges.

Vancouver police did a sting with Telus, finding ready buyers for wire and even a phone booth. Bronze memorial plaques from the Royal Westminster armoury, headstones – nothing’s sacred to the zombie metal-heads and their fences.

How about stealing the wire that lights up a sports field so kids can play? Sure, and then they came back two more times and did it again!

Langley’s been trying as hard as any place. They wanted to force their only scrap dealer to hold all purchases for seven days, but they gave up on that. The operator says he handles 50,000 pounds a day and can’t store a week’s worth. He does take a picture of every seller with his stuff, which I suppose may also offend higher legal minds.

Meanwhile, here on the ground, the latest trend in metal theft is catalytic converters on car exhaust systems, which contain a platinum compound. Three cars in Port Moody had their converters stolen in late February, and similar thefts have been reported in several U.S. cities.

Thieves have broken into homes under construction to strip out wiring before it is covered by drywall, and others have been killed trying to steal high-voltage equipment. They learned that phone lines are a softer target.

The Union of B.C. Municipalities called for new provincial legislation that would satisfy the privacy police. The appeal court justices did seem to leave that possibility open. A computerized tracking system developed for pawnshops might work, if the law specifically empowers cities to use it.

But if that’s what’s required, don’t get your hopes up too much. Les tells me those kinds of amendments can’t possibly be lawyered up in time to make it into the spring session of the legislature.

That means party time for metal-heads again this summer, and at this point, one can’t even know for sure if there will be a fall session this year.

Too bad there’s no climate change benefit to be had.


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