A special legislative panel is recommending new reporting requirements, sting operations and stiffer penalties in a bid to curb the tide of copper thefts.
The three-member panel also wants to outlaw the practice where some people selling scrap to dealers, often stolen from air conditioning units, can walk out with cash. Instead, they would have to wait for a check.
But a lobbyist for county prosecutors said legislators are fooling themselves if they believe any of this will result in more people being convicted.
Kim MacEachern of the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys Advisory Council said the only way someone can be charged is if police can get connect a particular pile of scrap that someone is attempting to sell with a particular theft.
"So how do we know when he's taking it to the scrap dealer and selling it off that it came from SRP's transformer?'' she asked, referring to the Phoenix-area electric utility. "We don't.''
MacEachern said that's why, out of about 2,300 reported cases of metal theft in the last year in Maricopa County, only 25 were referred for prosecution.
"The way these people get caught is either the victim catches them in the act or the victim's quick enough to call the neighborhood scrap dealers when they find that something's missing,'' she told members of the Metal Theft Ad Hoc Study Committee. "Or law enforcement just gets lucky.''
Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, conceded the problem. He said that's why the panel is recommending formation of a "metal theft alert system'' which would provide a real-time link of those who are likely to be victims of copper theft with not just police but with all scrap dealers.
"It comes up on an alert, they're on the lookout for it,'' Forese said.
"A fellow comes in, trying to sell this material, they immediately reach out to the police,'' he continued. "They, then, testify against this person for trying to sell stolen material.''
He agreed that still leaves the question of linking a specific piece of copper with a specific theft -- or even proving that the metal was stolen in the first place. But Forese said it provides police with a starting point.
"If a landlord has three (air conditioning) units destroyed and 30 minutes after he's reported this, a guy walks in with three copper coils ... then they've got something to work with,'' Forese said.
Forese said one thing that might help, if approved, is funding for a public awareness campaign, urging people to keep their eyes open for unusual activity. MacEachern agreed.
"If they see someone messing around, for example, with an SRP piece of equipment and there's not an SRP truck around for miles, that should give them a clue to call the police and report that activity,'' she said. "That's probably a crime in the making.''
Another part of the 10-point proposal is designed to be preventative. It would require police to not only identify anyone who sells more than $15,000 worth of metal in any one year, but to actually make contact with each of them.
"Letting them know that they're being watched I believe is going to have a significant impact,'' Forese said.
The committee did not recommend increasing the penalties beyond what they already are in general state law. That is based on the value of the item stolen along with the damage caused.
But panel members are proposing there be an entirely new crime created in situations where the theft of metal has damaged public infrastructure, such as a phone system. The presumptive penalty for that would be five years in state prison, regardless of the value of the metal stolen.
MacEachern's assessment that thieves are caught only with special help was borne out earlier this week when Arizona Department of Public Safety investigators tracked flatbed trucks of copper plates to a ranch near Marana. That seizure was the result of a tip that came from security personnel at the Asarco mine near Hayden.