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Penny ante: Tiny copper thefts a felony in Texas

Coins, aluminum cans covered under metal theft law

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For the past year and a half, stealing a penny in Texas has been a felony under state law.

Lawmakers didn’t set out to target the smallest of small-time thieves, though. It happened inadvertently in 2011 when they passed a bill aimed at curbing the growing problem of metal theft. State Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, R-Lexington, has filed a bill to correct the goof.

In 2011, Gov. Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 694, which edited a line in the penal code focused on theft valued at less than $20,000. The law originally classified such theft as a state jail felony if at least 50 percent of the stolen item was made of certain metals, such as copper or aluminum. SB 694, authored by state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, struck out the 50 percent threshold, which allowed items of any value, even tiny amounts of copper, to fall under the statute.

A penny is 2.5 percent copper, according to the U.S. Mint.

Prosecutors haven’t seized on the accidental felony as an excuse to start rounding up penny thieves, but the Texas District and County Attorneys Association has cited the law as an example of the unintended consequences of legislation. Though the potential penny felony has drawn more attention, prosecutors have joked they could also use the law to amp up the penalty for someone who steals a 12-pack of beer from a convenience store, said Shannon Edmonds, the group’s director of governmental relations.

“You could raise it to a felony by charging them with theft of aluminum,” Edmonds said.

Kleinschmidt, a lawyer who has handled some copper wire theft cases in the past, filed a bill this session to narrow the statute so that pennies and aluminum cans are no longer covered.

“It’s just a hole in the statute that needs to be fixed,” Kleinschmidt said.

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Kleinschmidt’s bill, HB 544, would require that the enhanced penalties only apply to metal thefts worth $500 or more. He said the current law, with no minimum value for felony-grade metal thefts, is too broad and confusing.

“It just happened to strike a chord with me because I do that work,” Kleinschmidt said. “It’s just not fair.”

The Texas Association of Builders, along with various other business organizations and police departments, backed the original bill in 2011 as part of an effort to more aggressively pursue metal thieves, including those that took copper wiring. A spokeswoman for the association said it did not have a comment on Kleinschmidt’s bill.

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