Operation Scrap Trap is the name of the crackdown by the sheriff’s offices of Cherokee, Laurens, Spartanburg and Union counties on the unlawful purchase of nonferrous metal. It was intiated by the Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Office in response to the recovery of only $89,000 worth of the $4 million worth of property stolen and/damaged in 2010 by thieves after nonferrous metal. The small amount recovered raised suspicions some metal dealers in Spartanburg County were buying stolen metal and not reporting it.
The investigation soon expanded to include the sheriff’s offices of the other three counties which had also experienced an upsurge in metal thefts. Another factor in the expansion was the determination thieves were transporting the stolen materials across county lines for sale in an effort to avoid detection.
Scrapyards are required by law to keep a record of all purchases of nonferrous metal in excess of 25 pounds. The investigation determined that while many scrap years did just that, others were not, among them a scrap yard in Union County where, according to Sheriff David Taylor, an undercover operative was able to sell more than 25 pounds of nonferrous metal on three separate occasions without being providing the property identification as required by law.
A total of 27 people were arrested as a result of the investigation, all of them owners or employees of scrap metal yards including the owner of the metal yard here in Union County and two of his employees.
Just days before Operation Scrap Metal was announced, sheriff’s deputies arriving for a training session at the old Carlsan Headstart building in Santuc, discovered yet another metal theft. Thieves had broke into the building and stole $1,000 worth of pipes, wiring and fixtures, causing $5,000 worth of damage in the process.
The break-in at Carlsan occurred just weeks after an even worse incident of vandalism and metal theft occurred at the old Excelsior Middle School in Union. There, thieves stole $20,000 worth of copper and aluminum, doing $75,000 worth of damage the building.
Four men have been arrested in connection with the Excelsior break-in, charged by the Union Public Safety Department with grand larceny, burglary and malicious damage with one of them also charged with receiving stolen goods. Three of the four are charged by the sheriff’s office with a total of 15 counts of unlawful transport of nonferrous metal. According to Taylor, the three were taking the metal from the school to a scrapyard in Spartanburg for sale. Unfortunately for them, the scrapyard they went to kept a record of the purchase, including photographs of the men and the items they’d brought. Taylor said the records kept by that scrapyard helped authorities crack the Sims Middle School case.
We make no judgment on the guilt or innocence of those charged in Operation Scrap Trap or arrested in connection with the Excelsior Middle School break-in. That will be decided in a court of law and, under our system of justice, the accused are innocent until proven guilty beyond a shadow of doubt with burden of proof being upon the state.
We do, however, offer the following observations and recommendation on the meaning of these events.
First, metal thieves are a particularly destructive species of criminal who, if given the opportunity, will literally dismantle the infrastructure of modern life to satisfy their own greed. The 475 incidents of metal theft that occurred in the four counties covered by Operation Scrap Trap in 2010 caused millions of dollars worth of damage that will have to be paid for by their victims, both public entities and private citizens.
Second, scrapyards that do not keep the required records are not only breaking the law themselves but enabling the metal thieves in their law-breaking. The only reason thieves steal metal is to sell it, but they don’t want to get caught, either in the process of the actual stealing or when selling what they’ve stolen. The only place they can dispose of the metal they’ve stolen is a scrapyard and if they know any scrapyard they go to is obeying the law and keeping the records that can help send them to jail it’s a powerful incentive for them to find another line of work, hopefully an honest one.
Third, the law requiring scrapyards to keep records on the sale of more than 25 pounds of metal should be strengthened to require those who repeatedly violate the law to not only face fines and jail time, but confiscation of their businesses.
Currently, conviction on a first offense brings a fine of $500 and a sentence of up to 30 days in jail. For conviction on a second offense, the penalty is up to a year in prison. For a third offense, the convicted face up to three years in prison.
These penalties are fine as far as the go, but they don’t sufficiently punish those scrapyard owners whose law-breaking is helping to facilitate the law-breaking of the metal thieves. If scrapyard owners considering breaking the law knew they not only face a fine and a jail sentence but confiscation of their property and loss of business, you can be certain their recordkeeping would improve overnight.
Confiscation may sound extreme, but consider the damage done by metal thieves, damage that will have to be paid for by homeowners hiring plumbers and electricians to install new pipes and wiring and who will likely end up paying higher insurance premiums. In the case of publicly-owned buildings like Excelsior Middle and Carlsan, the cost will be borne, one way or another, by the taxpayer.
If law-abiding must pay so should the law-breaking. As for those who object that this would be unfair, well, if you don’t want to be punished for breaking the law, don’t break the law.