Pr. George's Weighs Plan to Restrict Pawnshop Sales

By Jonathan Mummolo and Matt Zapotosky
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Prince George's County Council introduced a bill Tuesday that would bar pawnshops and secondhand stores from selling such items as food, cosmetics and medications.

The bill, sponsored by council member Eric Olson (D-College Park), is intended to protect consumers from potentially unsafe merchandise. It is the latest effort by area officials to impose limits on establishments that many residents say bring down their neighborhoods, including strip clubs and liquor and check-cashing stores.

In 2007, the council passed a law -- also supported by Olson -- capping the number of pawnshops allowed in the county at 31.

Olson said that he is not trying to drive such stores out of business and that he merely wishes to ensure patrons' safety. He said county police have told him that some shops are selling infant formula and over-the-counter medications and that such products should not be sold secondhand.

"This is a health and public safety issue," Olson said. "I think that when you look at these products and they're not being sold by a retailer who is intended to sell it, I think it calls into question the integrity of the products."

Rick Sussman, president of the Maryland Pawnbrokers Association, said he is not aware of pawnshops selling the items mentioned in Olson's bill.

"It's surprising that there's a need for that bill," said Sussman, who owns a pawnshop in Baltimore. "I'm always leery of legislation that is limited specifically to pawnshops, because many times legislators don't realize that pawnshops are a very small subset of the secondhand industry."

Unlike secondhand stores, pawnshops lend money in exchange for an item, which is then held for an agreed-upon time so the person who pawned it in can buy it back. Sussman said many localities regulate secondhand stores less stringently than pawnshops. The Prince George's cap does not apply to secondhand stores, although the newly proposed restrictions would.

Olson said there is concern that some of the products mentioned in the bill are stolen.

"Who has . . . cases of infant formula just sitting around their house to be brought to a pawnshop?" he asked.

Since its inception in July, the police department's pawnshop task force has raided two shops in search of stolen goods -- Maryland Computer Xchange and Parkway Pawn. County pawnshops conducted 1.2 million transactions in the first six months of this year, and investigators think many of them involved stolen goods, police said. Most of the county's pawnshops are in the Hyattsville area.

"Our large retailers, especially, have been suffering loss, and this is affecting the bottom line for everybody," said police Maj. Robert Liberati, head of the task force.

Sussman said inevitably some stolen items are pawned. But it is in pawnshops' interest to reject them, he said, because money from such transactions is forfeit if police learn that the items are stolen.

The county requires all pawnshops and secondhand stores to have licenses. The new bill would require the shops to "conspicuously" display a license and a sign informing customers what items are prohibited.

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