The Erie County Legislature unanimously passed a law Thursday that is designed to make it easier for police to catch thieves and return stolen property fenced at pawnshops and jewelry stores.
The bipartisan law would require pawnbrokers, those selling secondhand jewelry, and gold and coin dealers to hang onto any items they purchase from customers for at least two weeks before reselling it or melting it down.
“We finally have a law that both business owners and law enforcement agree is workable, beneficial and will get the job done,” said Legislature Majority Leader Joseph Lorigo, who co-sponsored the law with legislators Lynne Dixon and Peter Savage.
Top police administrators have long lobbied for tighter regulation of pawnshops, especially in light of the heroin and opioid drug epidemic, which has resulted in addicts stealing jewelry and other valuables from their own families. At last week’s public hearing, area police chiefs recalled tracking down stolen goods to a local pawnshop or secondhand jewelry dealer only to discover the items had been melted down within 24 hours of when they were purchased.
“For a lot of these stolen items, it’s not even the monetary value of them,” said Dixon. “Its the fact that many of these items that are stolen are family heirlooms that have stayed in a family for generations.”
Thursday’s adoption marks the second time the Legislature has attempted to put such a law in place. In March, the Legislature approved a stricter law that would have required extensive online documentation of every item received by a secondhand dealer, which could be electronically searched by law enforcement.
The law sparked a backlash from secondhand business owners, who called it overly prescriptive and burdensome. The proposal was rescinded a month later.
The new law no longer requires extensive electronic documentation. It does, however, require that all pawnbrokers and secondhand dealers be licensed and adhere to a 14-day hold on all items received. The law also requires the dealers to verify the identity of every person from whom a purchase is made and keep documentation for five years on items received from each seller.
Those who violate the law are subject to a fine of $200 for the first offense, $1,000 for the second offense and $3,000 for subsequent offenses.
County Executive Mark Poloncarz has 30 days to hold a public hearing on the law and to decide whether to sign it.
Jewelers and coin collectors who attended last week’s public hearing were not as opposed to the revised law and said they have made efforts to aid law enforcement. But they still raised concerns about issues including what counts as an offense and formats for documents.
Don Hoffman, owner of Airport Plaza Jewelers in Cheektowaga, has been among the most vocal critics of the law. A representative reading his remarks during a public hearing last week complained that the law singles out only certain businesses while exempting others, including antique shops.
Legislators pointed out that the City of Buffalo already has pawnshop regulations.
In response to concerns that the county is imposing harsh regulations on small businesses in the county, Lorigo said, “Those pawnshop owners who are buying stolen property should not be protected under the law.”
Savage added, “A 14-day hold period is not going to be overly intrusive to any business. It’s a responsible period of time to allow law enforcement to do their job.”