FOR IMMEDIATE RELASE--The Vermont Statehouse is seen through the cover of a maple tree in Montpelier, Vt., Oct. 26, 1999. Built of white granite from nearby hills and topped with a gold-leaf dome, the Statehouse has been called by the National Register of Historic Places "one of the most picturesque statehouses in the country." Built in 1857 it contains many furnishings dating from the mid-19th century, including the original 30 black walnut desks in the Senate. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)
MONTPELIER — New attempts to crack down on drug-related burglaries have pitted police against the precious-metals dealers whose transactions they want to scrutinize.
Legislation under consideration in Montpelier would grant police broad controls over dealers who trade in gold, silver and other precious metals. As the price of those metals continues to soar, Vermont State Police Detective Benjamin Katz told lawmakers last week, they’ve become an increasingly popular target for drug addicts resorting to home burglaries to feed their habits.
“In the last couple months, we’ve (investigated) a number of burglaries where they walked past the laptop, gone past the flat-screen TV, and gone straight to the jewelry,” Katz told the Senate Committee on Economic Development. “And the reason is because they can sell that jewelry to one of these stores and get cash right away.”
In addition to requiring any precious-metals dealer who conducts more than $50,000 in transactions to get a license, the law would require them to take digital photographs of the person from whom they’re purchasing the goods, as well as the items being sold.
They’d also have to collect the seller’s driver’s license number and license plate number. And if the transaction exceeds $1,000, the dealer would have to provide all the information to the nearest law enforcement agency, whether they suspected wrongdoing or not.
Senate lawmakers seemed taken aback by the scope of the request.
“Inevitably we’re going to have a lot of totally innocent people who are selling Grandma’s ring and it’s more than $1,000 and their photo identification goes into a police database under suspicious activity,” said Sen. Philip Baruth, a Chittenden County Democrat. “It’s like this whole bill begins to seem like the fantasy of a law enforcement officer.”
Katz said the rising price of precious metals has “dealers” of questionable scruples cropping up across Vermont. The Rutland area alone now has 26 businesses advertising to buy gold, according to Katz.
“They have more in Rutland now than McDonald’s or Burger Kings,” Katz said.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, a Vergennes Democrat, introduced a companion bill in the House after seeing random storefronts in her district begin advertising their willingness to purchase gold or silver.
“You’d think if an 18-year-old showed up with a pillowcase full of coins they’d turn him away,” Lanpher said. “But that isn’t always happening, and we need some more regulation.”
Royal Barnard, a longtime dealer in coins and precious metals in Rutland, said legitimate dealers are eager to help police nab criminals. But he said the high price of the metals means that most transactions now exceed $1,000.
“And what an enormous invasion of this person’s privacy. (Police) have no right to know what he sold,” Barnard said. “And they’re going to be damn busy.”
The law would also mandate a 30-day hold on all items purchased by dealers. Katz said that would give police time to track stolen goods before they’re shipped off to be melted down. But Tim Puro, owner of Puro’s Coins and Jewelry in Rutland, said that would force dealers to negotiate volatile swings in the precious metals market. Also, Puro told lawmakers, he couldn’t afford to hold on to inventory for so long.
“There’s some months where I do $200,000 worth of business, and I’m just a two-man shop,” Puro said. “For me to hold $200,000 worth of material for 30 days, I couldn’t do it, for cash flow reasons.”
Puro said he’s on board completely with police efforts to crack down on sales of stolen goods.
“There’s nothing that gets my blood roiling more than somebody trying to sell me something that’s stolen,” Puro said. “I love busting these people.”
But he said there are more effective ways of doing it that won’t complicate the business models of legitimate dealers like himself.
Puro and Barnard said they think the licensing requirement makes good sense. Puro also said he thinks the requirement that sellers be paid by check, not cash, is smart.
But instead of heaping burdensome record-keeping requirements on dealers, he said police should create a central database where they can record, in real time, the details of all recent jewelry thefts. Puro said that if dealers had access to that kind of information, they could become eyes and ears for law enforcement.
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