Bill would allow D.C. police chief to close shops linked to stolen cellphones

May 29, 2013

In an attempt to curb street robberies, the chairman of the D.C. Council’s public safety committee has proposed giving the police chief broad emergency powers to shut down stores linked to trafficking in stolen cellphones.

Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) is modeling the bill after a similar provision that allows the chief to close bars and liquor establishments for 96 hours in the aftermath of violence. Wells noted that a string of nail salons and corner grocery stores have expanded into the illegal trade of electronic gadgets.

“I refuse to stand by quietly as citizens of the District walk in fear of being the next target,” said Wells, who is running for mayor. “We must prevent predators of property from profiting from their criminal acts.”

Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has proposed changes in the legislation that Wells said could let some shopkeepers off easy but that the chief said will stand up better at administrative hearings and during appeals. Lanier also testified at a hearing Wednesday that she wants language that is as broad as possible, to include a multitude of ways stolen goods get converted into cash on the streets, including through gift cards.

“As you know, the scope of the problem is massive,” she said, noting that the theft of cellphones and smart phones is driving up crime rates nationwide.

Although violent crime and homicides have decreased in the District over the past few years, the number of street robberies is holding virtually steady, with 1,482 reported this year. Wells said that 743, slightly more than half, involved cellphones. Lanier said the percentage has increased each year from 2007, when 24 percent of robberies involved cellphones. The chief said that during one recent stolen-goods operation, police executed 31 search warrants, made 53 arrests and seized 500 stolen cellphones.

Lanier has long targeted cellphone theft through enforcement and negotiations. She has publicly scolded a company that uses kiosks to exchange used cellphones for cash, saying it provides a quick marketplace for thieves. And she persuaded cellphone makers to set up a nationwide registry of stolen phones to help track the devices and allow customers to render them inoperable — called “bricking.”

Wells said he is disturbed by reports that mostly small shops such as nail salons have been buying and reselling cellphones. His proposal would allow Lanier to designate items most often targeted in robberies as “high-offense contraband” and then shut down shops that sell them without following laws, such as ensuring that the items are not stolen. He proposed allowing Lanier to shutter the shops for 72 hours, after which owners could appeal.

But Lanier proposed a $2,500 fine and warning for the first offense, saying officers have encountered rogue employees bartering in phones without the owners’ knowledge. The chief wants graduated penalties leading up to the ability to invoke emergency powers. And instead of creating a new bureaucracy to handle the issue, she wants to strengthen the business-licensing system.

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