March 9, 2007

Bill Ups Pawn-Shop Waiting Time

By Talia Buford; Journal Staff Writer

WEST WARWICK - A bill proposed by Rep. Patricia A. Serpa, D-West Warwick, Warwick, Coventry, would tighten the law that governs the sale of precious metals by pawn shops and extend both a required wait time and participation in a statewide database to secondhand dealers as well.

The bill would increase the time pawn shops must wait before reselling jewelry, precious stones, coins and precious metals. Currently, shops must hold the items for one week. The bill would stretch that time to two weeks. It would also require secondhand dealers such as consignment shops to begin entering sale information to the Rhode Island Precious Metals & Pawn Database that is monitored by police officers for stolen goods.

"The police already do a great job given the current seven-day time frame," said Serpa, a freshman representative from West Warwick. "By requiring pawn brokers to keep items in the database for 14 days, maybe even more families and individuals can have the relief of having their valuables returned."

The system logs every piece of precious metal that has been brought to pawn shops across the state. When a precious metal is brought into a pawn shop, the owners must log a description of the item, the day it was sold, and the seller's information into the database. For seven days, that information stays in the system and the item cannot be sold.

The police can search the site for a particular item, suspect or pawn shop, or can just scroll through the recent transactions, said West Warwick Police Detective Robert DiCarlo. If the police match an item with the description of an item reported stolen or missing, the pawn shop must hand it over to the authorities, DiCarlo said. However, if no police action is taken within that week, the pawn shop is able to resell the item or send it away to be melted down, he said.

"If it turns out to be stolen, the pawn shop takes a hit," he said. "I can't tell you how many times I've tracked something down only to call the pawn shop and have them tell me they just sent it out to be melted."

The Web site is more advanced than the so-called GEMS system the police used during the 1990s. That database was run through the state treasurer's office and included antiquated technology and long waits for officers. Then that system was scrapped, forcing officers to either comb through boxes of handwritten logs from pawn shops across the state or visit the shops in person.

On Monday, the system returned records for 3,032 items that had been pawned since Feb. 1 alone.

The system was revived in 2005, after the attorney general's office began running the program, at the suggestion of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association. The program got a technology upgrade and relaunched. Already, DiCarlo said, 64 people have been reconnected with their lost items.

The system has allowed for some happy reunions, DiCarlo said, such as the Minnesota man who was reunited with his lost high school class ring that ended up in a Rhode Island pawn shop.

It's also been credited with the arrest of Cody Zab, the man police said set the Feb. 2006 fire that took the life of Pawtucket resident Nocenzo Vanti, 95. The case was at a standstill for months before Zab, who had moved to Ohio shortly after the fire, was arrested in a domestic incident. Ohio authorities ran Zab's name through a database and up popped an outstanding warrant for receiving stolen goods over $500. The warrant stemmed from information entered into the Precious Metals and Pawn Database. Zab was indicted in December and returned to the Adult Correctional Institutions in Cranston, where he has been since his July arrest. He is currently awaiting trial.

"By doubling the waiting period, it will be easier to recover items - not to mention prosecute and charge someone with a crime," he said. "But it's really about getting people their property back. Most really want their items back because they have sentimental value."

The proposed bill has been sent to a committee for further study, Serpa said. If approved, it could be sent to the House of Representatives for a vote in the next few months.

"It doesn't cost anything," Serpa said. "There's no fiscal impact. I can't imagine anyone would not be for it."

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