The conviction of a Banbury scrap dealer who purchased goods he believed to be stolen played a vital role in a force-wide clamp down against metal theft, Thames Valley Police have claimed.
Last Thursday, Joseph Smith, 24, of Milton Road, Adderbury, was ordered to pay a £1,750 fine by an Oxford Crown Court judge after being convicted of five counts of attempting to disguise, convey or conceal criminal property.
He was also ordered to pay £2,500 court costs.
The convictions related to Smith’s agreement to buy lengths of stripped copper cable from undercover police officers who visited the Smiths of Bloxham scrap yard some 33 times between December 2011 and May 2012 as part of a force-wide crackdown on scrap metal theft known as Operation Symphony.
Det Chief Inspector Mick Saunders said: “As a result of operations such as this, we have seen a reduction of nearly 50 per cent in metal theft in 2012/13 compared to the last financial year.
“Smith knowingly bought scrap metal from undercover officers posing as metal thieves who made no attempt to conceal the ‘illegal’ provenance of the materials they were offering for sale.”
None of the offered goods were stolen but the prosecution said Smith knew or believed them to be so.
Defending Smith, Justin Houghton-Roberts said he had been unfairly and repeatedly “tricked” as the police returned to the yard “again and again”.
The jury was unable to reach a verdict on one count of the same charge alleged to have been committed by Smith’s brother, Tommy Smith, 36, of Milton Road, Bloxham. Chief Inspector Saunders said: “Metal theft is an invasive crime which has a real impact on victims, be it a parish who have had lead stolen from their church roof, to a community which has lost all phone and internet access because cabling has been stolen, to train travellers being disrupted because network rail cable has been stolen. We will continue to robustly pursue anyone who is involved in illegal scrap metal trade.”
But evidence aired in court showed it is often impossible to identify cable as being stolen and highlighted the need to target metal theft at source before the cable is removed from sites.
Giving evidence, contractors described how off-cuts of cable are often left behind by firms on work sites which can then be legitimately sold to scrap yards.
Grant Moorman from SSE said identifying SSE-owned cable “wasn’t straighforward”, as sub-contractors might use cable from the same sellers and excess cable might be abandoned at the site of a job leading it to fall into the hands of a third party.
Groundworker and subcontractor Mr Miller testified he sometimes “took off-cuts” of cable left on site by SSE to the Smith’s yard and legitimately sold them.
The problems of identifying the cable’s provenance arise because copper cable is routinely stripped of its casing as it commands a higher price from dealers. When police raided the Smiths yard in June 2012 they confiscated a “huge amount of metal” but it was subsequently returned as none of it could be proved to be stolen.
The Government has now tightened up regulations under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013. No scrap can now be accepted for cash payments and all dealers and traders must be licenced.