The chairman of the D.C. City Council’s public safety committee plans to introduce emergency legislation Tuesday granting the mayor authority to temporarily close any business found to be selling stolen cellphones.
The power, intended to address what police describe as an epidemic of phone thefts in the city, would be similar to the police chief’s authority to shutter taverns after a serious crime and the health department’s ability to close a restaurant after a poor evaluation. Store closures would last 72 hours, after which the owners could appeal before a public hearing.
“The greatest increase in crime is being supported by some local businesses by creating a cash market with stolen phones,” said council member Tommy Wells, who has formed an exploratory committee for a possible mayoral run. “They should not have the right to do business in our city.”
Wells (D-Ward 6) noted recent examples of robberies that left victims seriously injured as well as an incident in which a phone was plucked from the hands of a man sitting down to lunch outside Union Station.
“It’s upsetting to hear that the robbers were taking cellphones from people getting out of the station, going just three or four blocks away to get ready cash, and then getting back on Metro and escaping,” he said.
The proposal comes a week after Wells tweeted from a private police crime meeting that commanders were blaming GameStop stores on Pennsylvania Avenue Southeast and H Street Northeast for dealing in stolen cellphones. Wells’s tweet said the stores were “found to have 100s of used cell phones. All likely stolen from DC residents, #unbelievable.”
GameStop quickly denied the allegation, and police asked Wells not to talk about the issue further to avoid jeopardizing any pending investigations. Police said only that officers had discussed locations where used cellphones could be sold and that they “work closely with retailers and local businesses to ensure they are not unknowingly purchasing stolen items.”
Mayoral spokesman Pedro Ribeiro said the administration “supports the intent of the legislation.” But he said the way it’s written might not accomplish what Wells wants, and he said the mayor’s office will help Wells work on the wording.
Authorities say that the District government has several ways to close problem establishments. Last year, police teamed up with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs to shut down more than a dozen businesses selling stolen goods.
If approved, the emergency provision would remain in effect for 90 days and then expire. Wells said he also plans to introduce a version of the bill to create a permanent law. He said he might pull back on the emergency legislation if he’s satisfied that other lawmakers are serious about quickly enacting similar legislation.