PITTSBURGH (AP) – The owners of two secondhand stores are challenging an ordinance in Altoona that requires them to hold items for a week and report who brought them in so police can ensure they were not stolen.

Police say similar ordinances governing secondhand merchandise are common nationwide. Lawmakers in Rhode Island this week introduced a bill that would make secondhand store owners report their purchases to police just like pawn shops, which have long been subject to such scrutiny.

“The city (of Pittsburgh) has had an ordinance for 50 years and it has worked beautifully,” said James Broff, 61, a third-generation Pittsburgh pawn broker. The Pittsburgh law also applies to secondhand stores and antique dealers.

The ordinance in Altoona took effect in February 2002. It targets pawn shops, although Altoona doesn’t have any, and the dozen or so secondhand stores in the city, located about 85 miles east of Pittsburgh.

“We’ve begun having problems with drug abuse … and we have a problem with theft of property (by drug users) and retail theft, and some of that property is being sold at some of these secondhand dealers,” said Altoona Deputy Police Chief Mitchell Cooper.

But two shops, Crazy Hazys II and VJ’s Secondhand Store, have asked a judge to strike down the ordinance, claiming it unfairly excludes antique stores and is costing the secondhand store owners time and money.

Michael Hazenstab, the owner of Crazy Hazys, said he used to buy $15,000 to $20,000 worth of merchandise each month that he resells for twice that amount. Now, Hazenstab is buying $10,000 to $14,000 monthly.

“People come in and I have something sitting over there” in the seven-day waiting area, “but they can’t have it. They’re not going to come back and buy it next week,” said Hazenstab, whose store opened in 1993.

“If I had a problem (with stolen property) here, I wouldn’t care. But we don’t have a problem and this is costing me money,” he said.

Cooper says police have recovered stolen goods from both stores on occasion, although their owners have never been charged with knowingly accepting stolen goods.

Bob Benedict, executive director of the National Pawnbroker’s Association of Roanoke, Texas, understands both sides of the argument.

He said Altoona’s ordinance would be fairer to the secondhand stores and help police find more stolen property if antique and jewelry stores also were subject to it. But he also said society has an interest in keeping stolen merchandise from being resold.

That’s why nearly 2,000 pawnbrokers in Benedict’s organization report transactions daily or weekly to police.

“We’re educating the public, slowly but surely, because pawn brokers have had a kind of bad reputation, but the industry cleaned itself up,” Benedict said.

Philadelphia police officer Linda Fell, the city’s pawn broker enforcement officer, said pawn shops fall under strict federal and state banking laws and can be audited if they do not cooperate with police.

“No matter how careful they are, sooner or later, (pawn shops and secondhand stores) are going to get a piece of stolen merchandise,” Fell said. “And it’s not insulting your integrity to have you report those transactions, because some day it’s going to be your house burglarized and they’re going to be stealing your vacuum cleaner and your camera.”

AP-ES-01-31-04 0333EST



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