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Burglary-tool bill approved unanimously by Senate

Apr. 05, 2013 @ 01:00 PM

CHARLESTON -- The West Virginia Senate unanimously passed a bill on Wednesday to create a misdemeanor offense for being caught in possession of tools consistent with property crimes.

Senate Bill 117, which was pushed by Huntington Police Chief Skip Holbrook, was introduced on the first day of the 2013 session in February. After six weeks of obscurity, the bill was resurrected last week by Sens. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, and lead sponsor Evan Jenkins, D-Cabell.

The new statute states that a person would be guilty of a misdemeanor for possession of burglar's tools. The bill's language doesn't list names of tools, 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 into premises or theft by a physical taking under circumstances which leave no reasonable doubt as to his or her" intention to commit or knowledge of a crime.

"I don't want people to think if you are walking around with a screwdriver, we will lock you up," Holbrook said. "But it's not unusual for our guys to run into people at 3 or 4 in the morning with these tools."

He said there are various tools known to law enforcement that are used to break vehicle windows, while others, such as crowbars and wire or pipe cutters, are commonly used in breaking and entering, burglary or copper theft.

The bill, Holbrook said, is meant to be a preventative measure that also will allow law enforcement agencies to get fingerprints of suspicious individuals into the database. Then, if a property crime occurs where fingerprints are collected, those can be compared with what is in the database.

"It's preventative in nature and assists us with identifying," he said. "We're adding people we know are (committing) property crimes. But the burden of proof is going to be on us."

Jenkins said the bill gives West Virginia law enforcement agencies the same abilities as Kentucky and Ohio, which already have burglar's tool possession as a chargeable offense.

"It will certainly be a deterrent and get people before they commit a crime," Jenkins said. "It also gives law enforcement a powerful tool to detain somebody."

But he agreed with Holbrook that officials will have to have clear evidence of intent to commit a crime.

Holbrook also addressed the question that comes up with any talk of creating new offenses: Will it contribute to the prison overcrowding problem or the rising regional jail costs? He doesn't think so.

"Spending a night in jail doesn't contribute to ... (an overcrowding) problem that already exists," he said. "This is the start of a process of getting people into the system and preventing crime. We can't let prison overcrowding dictate how we police."

He also said that law enforcement agencies can't arrest their way out of a problem. But agencies do need to have the tools to fight crime.

Jenkins and Holbrook also noted that although Huntington has seen a decline in the violent crime rate in recent years, property crimes are on the rise, and that is something that worries people.

"It's not a violent crime, but people don't want to be victimized," Holbrook said.

The bill sets penalties of a fine of not more than $1,000 and up to one year of incarceration. It now goes to the House of Delegates for consideration.