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Criminal-tool laws see mixed results

Criminal tools
Jul. 19, 2013 @ 11:37 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Laws similar to an ordinance proposed in Huntington to outlaw possession of tools consistent with property crimes have been in effect in Ohio and Kentucky for years and have had mixed success, officials in those states say.

Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook and Mayor Steve Williams tried unsuccessfully earlier this year to get a similar bill passed by the West Virginia Legislature. The state Senate passed a burglar's tool bill, but the bill died in the House of Delegates. The issue could be put before Huntington City Council at its meeting Monday.

Holbrook believes the proposed city ordinance would prevent burglaries and help police solve property crimes. The proposed ordinance doesn't list the kinds of tools that would be targeted, but it does describe them as "any tool, instrument or other thing adapted, designed or commonly used for committing or facilitating the commission of an offense" involving forcible entry. The circumstances also must "leave no reasonable doubt" that the tools are intended to be used in the commission of an offense involving forcible entry. A conviction of the proposed misdemeanor offense would carry a fine of up to $500, 30 days in jail, or both.

Of the three states in the Tri-State, Ohio has the strongest law. That measure makes possession of criminal tools a low-level felony. The charge carries up to a year in prison, said Lawrence County Prosecuting Attorney Brigham Anderson.

The law allows Anderson to charge people in possession of things like crowbars, wire cutters and bolt cutters in burglary and breaking and entering cases, he said. It also can be used in drug cases, he said. Anyone caught with illegal drugs also can be charged with a felony if they have syringes or digital scales, for example, he said.

"It's another tool we can use," Anderson said. "It should be a felony."

"It's been around for a long time in Ohio," said W. Richard Walton, a Lawrence County common pleas court judge. "It can be very effective,"

In Kentucky, the charge of possession of burglary tools is a misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in the county jail.

"It's a pretty lousy law," said Boyd County Commonwealth's Attorney David Justice. "We use it very seldom."

Even if someone is caught walking around with a pry bar late at night, prosecutors in Kentucky have to prove the person plans to use it for a burglary, Justice said.

The penalty provision is weak since under Kentucky law, any misdemeanor sentence has to run concurrently with a felony prison sentence, he said. So if someone was convicted of burglary and got five years in prison and was convicted of possession of burglary tools and was sentenced to 12 months in jail, the prison time would be five years and not six, he said.

"We don't handle misdemeanors," Justice said. "The county attorney is more likely to use it.

"I don't think it should be a felony," he said. "We have a lot more important things to deal with."

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