Howard City police chief proposes pawn shop ordinance for Montcalm County

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:11 am on Thursday, June 13, 2013

Montcalm County pawn shops, such as Fast Cash Outlet in Greenville, may face a new ordinance, which would assist police officers searching for stolen merchandise. — Daily News/Elisabeth Waldon

STANTON — The act of pawning — offering a loan as collateral for personal property — is one of the oldest professions known to mankind.

Dating back to Biblical times, the Mosiac Law was anti-pawnbroking as the law forbade taking interest from a poor borrower.

Being an ancient profession, it’s not surprising that the only pawn shop in Greenville — and possibly also the only pawn shop in Montcalm County — doesn’t quite operate on the cutting edge of technology.

Cash Management, which is also billed as Fast Cash Outlet at 103 S. Lafayette St. in Greenville, operates on an MS DOS system via an early 1990s Windows program.

“We are still on paper here,” summarized John Wolven, one of the store’s managers.

The store is owned by a man Wolven would only identify as “Richard,” who lives in Florida and owns other pawn shops in Cadillac, Grand Rapids and Ionia.

The Montcalm County Board of Commissioners is considering a pawn shop ordinance, which was proposed by Commissioner Steve DeWitt at Monday’s Law Enforcement & Courts Committee.

DeWitt, who is employed as the police chief of Howard City, said several programs are gaining in popularity for police officers searching for stolen merchandise at pawn shops.

One program, Business Watch International (BWI), requires a fingerprint scanner, web cam and basic computer with Internet Explorer 8 or 10 and a high speed Internet connection. The cost to the pawn shop for reporting transactions to police is 20 cents per transaction (a transaction can include more than one item). An unlimited number of police officers can have access to the BWI system.

The BWI program is currently being used in Grand Rapids, Lansing, Mount Pleasant and other Michigan cities.

“This is an ordinance that would help law enforcement in Montcalm County in a very real and specific way, which would in turn save taxpayers money,” DeWitt said.

DeWitt said driver’s licenses and photos aren’t always taken of customers at pawn shop and when they are taken, they are generally faxed at police request. Faxed photos aren’t exactly high quality.

“Online, we’re going to get a digital photography, we’re going to get an accurate description and we’re going to get a digital fingerprint of the person who brought it in,” DeWitt said.

“One thing I think pawn shop owners would tell you they have a problem with is credibility,” he added. “This would give them credibility. This benefits everybody all the way around. This benefits everybody but the bad guy.”

Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Ed Doyle and Montcalm County Sheriff’s Lt. Brian Waber also attended Monday’s committee meeting to discuss the proposed ordinance.

Doyle said he recovered more than $2,000 worth of stolen jewelry by searching on BWI or a similar program. The jewelry had been stolen from the Langston area and was recovered in Grandville.

“If we didn’t have that system in place, they would have never gotten that jewelry back,” Doyle said. “Some of those items were family heirlooms. They were going to be melted it down. Those were great-grandma’s rings that they were never going to see again if this system wasn’t in place.”

“This is long overdue,” Doyle added. “The criminals we’re dealing with nowadays, they’re not just local. They’ll drive in from 100 miles away just so we can’t track them. Once we know what these stores are using, we can get on there and search by name. It’s a great resource for us to follow through on.”

Waber said a sheriff’s officer recently spent the first several hours of his shift driving around to local pawn shops looking for stolen jewelry. If an online program was available, the officer could have searched for the stolen item online and then drove directly to the pawn shop to see it for himself.

“This would be a huge benefit to the law enforcement community as far as saving manpower, time and mileage on our cars,” Waber said. “I think it’s also a win for pawn shops. They may not say it, but they don’t like it when police come in. It doesn’t look good having an officer standing there, asking questions.”

DeWitt suggested a $500 or $1,000 fine for first-time offending pawn shops who don’t follow the ordinance. A second offense could carry a 90-day jail sentence as a misdemeanor.

“The residual effect is we’ll be helping law enforcement in other counties catch the bad guys too,” DeWitt said.

Commissioners approved having DeWitt draw up an ordinance for them to consider.

Wolven said police officers do come to the Fast Cash Outlet from time to time looking for stolen items and sometimes they find them. He said he and his fellow employees willingly give those items to police.

“The (ordinance) concept seems really cool and I like the idea as long as it’s just a police website, else it’s just a complete and utter invasion of privacy,” Wolven said. “It would be a lot of work going over to a new system here. It would make things really difficult really fast. It would be an expensive project.”

What would the owner of the pawn shop think?

“He won’t be thrilled,” Wolven summarized wryly.

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