- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 20, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - Kansas lawmakers considered a bill Tuesday that would toughen punishments for scrap metal theft amid an exponential rise in the crime statewide.

Law enforcement officials and representatives of utilities testified during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that millions of dollars in damage are being done to Kansas businesses and homes each year by scrap thieves.

Kansas Bureau of Investigation Director Kirk Thompson said the number of reported thefts of metals in the state jumped to 1,404 in 2012 from less than 400 in 2009, while the estimated value of the stolen goods reached $2.7 million in 2012 from $500,000 in 2009. Thompson acknowledged that these data were incomplete. For instance, they do not include crimes committed in Topeka and Kansas City, but he said they show a clear trend.

Kent Winter, a member of the Kansas Farm Bureau from Sedgwick County, testified that farm communities have been increasingly victimized by scrap theft as the price of copper doubled to $3 per pound last year after being valued at less than $1.50 per pound in 2008, according to NASDAQ. In the process of stealing copper wiring and piping from agricultural equipment, thieves often do thousands of dollars in damage and can disable vital machines for weeks, Winter said.

Ed Klumpp, legislative committee chair for the Kansas Association of Chiefs of Police, said law enforcement agencies previously viewed scrap theft as an urban issue but now see it as “a statewide crisis.”

But Senate Majority Leader Terry Bruce, a Republican from Nickerson, criticized the bill, saying its proposed punishments are excessive. The bill would make scrap theft a level five felony, meaning first time offenders would face 11 to 34 months in jail while repeat offenders could face more than 11 years behind bars. Bruce called such punishment “ridiculously high.”

Marc Bennett, Sedgwick County District Attorney, defended the stiffening of charges, saying that one of the goals is to get convicted scrap thieves off the street, whereas current sentences release thieves on probation on their first two convictions.

The bill would also set up a database that would help law enforcement agencies track metal transactions by scrap dealers and recycling centers and require those companies to pay an annual licensing fee of $500 to $1,500 per business location. Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt could suspend or revoke licenses from companies that sell stolen materials.

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Online:

Kansas Legislature: http://www.kslegislature.org

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