AUGUSTA — New legislation intended to discourage thefts of copper and other metals would impose new regulations on scrap-metal processors and higher penalties on those who break the law.

Waterville Police Chief Joseph Massey said his officers are often stymied in their investigations because processors don’t maintain detailed records of their purchases and do process materials quickly, sometimes within hours.

“Many scrap metal dealers are legitimate, they’re trying to do a good job, but we have many who are not,” he said.

At a gathering Tuesday of law enforcement, utility companies and others, Massey outlined a bill that he developed and had introduced in the Legislature with the help of Rep. Tom Longstaff, D-Waterville.

The Legislative Council, which must approve any new bills for the second session, voted last week to advance the scrap-metal legislation for consideration in January.

Augusta Police Department and Central Maine Power Co. told the audience about the scope of the problem. There have been 43 thefts of copper at CMP facilities so far this year, compared with 29 in 2010.

“It’s a continuing problem for us,” spokesman John Carroll said in an interview. “First and foremost, it’s a safety concern. Some of these thefts, the people who are stealing the copper are at risk, and they could also put our employees or the public at risk. And secondly, it affects the reliability of our system.”

Augusta police have handled 80 cases of metal thefts this year: 19 from CMP facilities, 26 from businesses and 35 from homes. They have charged 15 suspects in those cases and have more than 100 suspects, Deputy Chief Jared Mills said.

The cost amounts to more than $100,000 in stolen property, damages and public safety responses, Mills said.

Massey said the poor economy, high metal prices and prescription-drug abuse are driving the thefts.

Massey studied laws from several other states and found a range of regulations on scrap metal dealers, from very strict to virtually none at all. He chose a “middle-of-the-road approach.”

“We didn’t want to seem like the state of Maine was not business-friendly and we were going to impose strict regulations on scrap-metal dealers that would put them out of business,” Massey said.

The bill proposes that scrap-metal processors must keep records of all transactions, not just those over the existing threshold of $50 or 100 pounds.

They would have to check photo identification for anyone selling scrap metal, make a copy of the identification, take the seller’s picture and record their vehicle’s make, model and license plate information.

Materials could not be processed, sold or removed for 72 weekday hours after purchase, and law enforcement officers would be able to issue a hold on materials suspected of being stolen.

The law now requires processors to pay by check, but a loophole allows the processors to cash checks. The new law would require processors to mail a check to a physical address, creating a paper trail, Massey said.

Penalties would be increased for both sellers who give false information to processors and processors who violate the rules. Penalties for processors start with a $1,000 fine and escalate to suspension of their license to operate.

The particulars could be changed in committee, but Massey said the concepts contained in the bill would create powerful tools for law enforcement.

“It gives us as law enforcement real tools to go to these scrap metal dealers, demand that they keep the metal, that they take down information, that they pay by check,” he said. “These dealers need to know they run the risk of losing their license if they continue to take in this metal and do not abide by the law.”

Kennebec Journal Staff Writer Susan McMillan can be contacted at 621-5645 or at: [email protected]