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Asheville police want City Council to pass law to enable online tracking of pawnshop sales

By Clarke Morrison

December 20, 2010

ASHEVILLE – Police want City Council to pass a law designed to help catch thieves who sell their ill-gotten gains to pawnshops and other dealers in secondhand goods.

The ordinance would require such businesses to submit identifying information about sales and sellers electronically via a national computer database called LeadsOnline.

State law already requires that pawnshops provide law enforcement with records of transactions. But most submit paper documents that must be manually entered into a local police database.

That means it can take two weeks or more before the data is available to investigators, said Mike Garrison, a detective with the Asheville Police Department. Having access to the information quickly online will make it easier to catch crooks cashing in on stolen property.

"By the time we realized the stolen item had been pawned, the item had already been sold," he said. "So we are losing the evidence."

Garrison said mandatory use of the LeadsOnline system would serve as a deterrent to would-be thieves.

"I think when everybody's required to go online, we're going to see a major increase in charges," he said.

"After a time I think that's going to level off. Criminals are going to know there's no use in stealing because you're going to get caught."

City Council is tentatively slated to consider the ordinance on Jan. 25. If approved, it would go into effect March 1.

Councilman Jan Davis said he'll need to study the proposal before deciding whether to support it.

"I do like the concept of the software connecting people so the stolen merchandize can be recovered," he said.

"From what I've heard about it, the ability to track stolen goods is a good thing."

Garrison said another advantage of the proposed ordinance is that for the first time other types of secondhand dealers — such as consignment shops, antique and precious metal dealers, eBay stores and cash converter stores — would be required to report their transactions to law enforcement.

Having them on board with the online reporting would close a major loophole, he said.

Alan Sheppard, owner of Alan's Jewelry & Pawn, agrees. He's been using LeadsOnline to voluntary report transactions for four years and has been an outspoken advocate of rules requiring use of the service, which is free to businesses.

Crooks are more likely to evade detection by selling stolen stuff to establishments that don't fall under the reporting requirements, he said.

"Our argument is just make it a level playing field for everyone," Sheppard said.

Another advantage of using the service is that police can track items that are stolen in Asheville and sold across state lines, Garrison said. Nationwide, some 1,600 law enforcement agencies and 11,000 businesses are participating.

And the system is cross-referenced with the National Crime Information Center, automatically alerting authorities when it finds a reported item that matches one in the national police database.

Garrison said about 18 businesses in Asheville already use LeadsOnline voluntarily to report their daily merchandise transactions.

The proposed ordinance would cover a total of about 50-75 businesses in the city, he estimates.

Sheppard said using the system is easy. It just takes a few minutes up upload information about the items and their sellers at the end of each business day, only a computer and Internet connection are needed and there's no inconvenience for the customer.

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