Copper law to be watched closely

With copper prices and theft on the rise again in Richmond County, authorities are taking action and watching to see whether a new law across the river proves effective.

Last week, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a new bill that will impose harsher penalties on thieves and metal dealers who buy stolen copper and will add regulations to make criminals more traceable. The law takes effect Aug. 16, but Richmond County sheriff's Capt. Scott Peebles said he doesn't expect it to have much of an impact locally because thieves in places such as Aiken and North Augusta can easily cross into Georgia to shirk the law.

Peebles was hesitant to offer an endorsement, saying that it would take studies and time before it can be determined whether the new law is effective.

Columbia County sheriff's Capt. Steve Morris is a little more optimistic, saying he would support a similar law in Georgia.

"It's certainly not going to hurt, and only time will tell," Morris said. "If there's a way to track (stolen copper and thieves), it'll be a help to officers."

Alan Murray, the owner of ALCS Recycling in Aiken, supports the state law. He said the requirement for scrap metal dealers to pay for copper by check is crucial to provide a way to trace criminals and will even make business easier for dealers who typically withdraw large sums of cash from banks daily.

"That should deter a good portion of it, I would think," said Murray, who agrees with the law's premise that many thieves are looking for quick money to use to buy drugs. "Cash is king on the street."

Georgia doesn't have any new copper theft laws on the horizon, but Peebles said Investigator Kendall Brown recently moved from the violent crimes division to a full-time position focused on fighting copper theft.

Peebles said Brown has been effective in the role before.

"The guys that we work with locally by and large are very cooperative with us," Peebles said. "Every time that we've done spot checking and things like that, they've been in compliance with the laws that are in existence."

Columbia County doesn't have any scrap metal dealers, but Morris said authorities will work with a task force from Richmond County to help protect businesses that are occasionally hit by copper thieves.

Peebles said the department will keep track of how many people Brown is able to catch, and more help could be added if it's deemed necessary.

"We're in it for the long haul," he said. "It's not something we're going to do for a week or two, or even for a few months."

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