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Hall to consider pawnshop rules
Lanier Jewelry & Loan owner Bill LaPointe talks about pawnshop regulations Wednesday in Gainesville. - photo by Tom Reed

Hall County Commissioner Jeff Stowe wants the thieves who burglarized his store caught and the electronics returned, and commissioners are considering rules that may do that.

Stowe’s retail store, Home Electronics Rent To Own, has had its front windows smashed three times in the past two years. Laptops, televisions and other electronics were stolen and while Stowe had registration numbers and video surveillance, there was nothing he could do.

Lt. Ken Neece, head of property crimes in the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division, wants commissioners to approve new laws that would require pawnshops, secondhand dealers and jewelry dealers to electronically record transactions and upload the information into a national database that county law enforcement officers can search.

“You feel demoralized,” Stowe said.

The proposed laws would require dealers to record the purchase or loan transaction, which would include electronic fingerprinting and photographing the customer and uploading it daily to LeadsOnline. It would also require dealers to hold the merchandise for 30 days, no matter if it’s a purchase, pawn, or precious metals.

The changes would be similar to what the city of Gainesville did last year and what other nearby areas have done. Tracking transactions in a database that includes more regions makes it easier to recover stolen items and catch those responsible. Other local governments with similar rules include Gwinnett and Jackson counties and the city of Buford.

The dealers are charged per transaction to pay for the local governments to have access to the system.

“It’ll be a whole lot easier to enforce,” Neece said. “It’s geared to try to limit their opportunity to get quick cash.”

The biggest cost, Stowe said, was the damage to the store. As a small-business owner, he can’t justify the cost to file a claim with his insurance company and have his premiums go up. He supports the proposed laws. He’s installed new security.

“I hope we can curb that kind of activity,” Stowe said.

Most of the time it’s career thieves and they take the same type of items because they’re easy to move and it’s quick cash, Neece said. Hot property includes guns, jewelry, tools and anything electronic.

Burglaries are up and penalties are down, both because of the economy. Neece said there’s been an increase in burglaries since the downturn and rise in unemployment.

The state of Georgia has also reduced the penalties for nonviolent crime, such as theft, to reduce prison time. Stealing more than $500 in value was considered a felony before criminal justice reform was passed by the General Assembly last year. Now less than $1,500 in value is a misdemeanor.

Pawnshop owner Bill LaPointe owns a shop in the county and one in the city of Gainesville. He supports the changes commissioners are considering, but he didn’t support the city changes.

The cost to put in the city’s new regulations and pay additional fees was a burden, he said. LaPointe also said the city government mandated the regulations, while Hall County, specifically Neece, has worked with the businesses to make its proposed laws businessfriendly. LaPointe estimated his cost to update his county store, if required, would be $15.

“It would be 10 times less to set up than the city,” he said. “$1,000 doesn’t sound like much to a city councilman, but it’s a lot to me.”

Many pawnshops in the area are family-owned, and LaPointe also objected to city rules that regulated employees.

LaPointe said he believed that pawnshops have an undeserved bad rap as helping people get away with theft. He said he has always reported transactions to police departments depending on the jurisdiction, only now he’s added the fingerprint and picture to his reporting for the city store.

Many dealers are honest and law-abiding, LaPointe said. At his county store, Southern Jewelry and Pawn, 14 items have been found to be stolen in the past decade, LaPointe said. He’s served on the National Pawnbrokers Association and the Pawn Brokers Association of Georgia board of directors for at least 15 years, although he’s retired from the national association.

But LaPointe said there are some bad apples out there. He complained about some dealers, especially jewelry and gold dealers, who don’t report transactions or aren’t holding the merchandise for seven days.

Neece said the county is enforcing state law, but uniform regulations are needed. Pawn transactions are required to be held for 30 days, and Neece wants that to be the standard for everyone in the county.

“We need to be on the same system,” Neece said, “operating with the same rules.”

Gainesville police are seeing results.

Neece got three calls from Gainesville police officers last week on stolen items.

The commissioners are expected to first consider the proposed laws at their meeting on March 14, said Melissa McCain, Hall County commissioners clerk.