On golden pawn

Brian Rieck was looking forward to hitting a few golf balls during an unseasonably warm weekend last month. But his plans were waylaid in the early afternoon of January 21 when someone walked into his garage--the door of which had been accidentally left open--and stole his golf clubs.

The burglar got away with an odd assortment of items. Besides the clubs, which Rieck estimated to be worth $500, the thief took a new weed whacker and an ancient pair of hedge clippers, given years ago to Rieck's wife, Jennifer, by her grandmother.

Fortunately for the Riecks, who live with their 2-year-old daughter in far southwest Dallas, a neighbor saw the thief load the loot into a car and speed away. The neighbor wrote down the license plate number and called Jennifer Rieck--who was inside tending to her child and had no idea a crime had occurred. She immediately called the Dallas police, who came to the scene and investigated.

Two days later, Sergeant Stephen Conover called from the Southwest Dallas Deployment Unit with great news. Police had found Brian's golf clubs at a Cedar Hill pawn shop and were preparing an arrest warrant for a 19-year-old burglary suspect, thanks to the description provided by the neighbor. Brian, an advertising salesman for the Dallas Observer, recalls feeling grateful, and then asking "how do I get my clubs back?"

He wasn't quite prepared for the answer. The police, according to the Riecks, said that Brian's best bet was basically to buy the clubs back from the Cedar Hill pawn shop where the thief had hocked them.

It didn't seem right that they should have to pay for the privilege of retrieving their property; but what the Riecks considered outrageous, Dallas police consider perfectly reasonable.

It turns out that in Dallas--and some neighboring cities--there are two ways for burglary victims to recover stolen items that have been hocked. The first option is to place faith in the legal system. A hearing date is scheduled before a magistrate, who rules on whether a pawn shop has to return the property to the crime victim.

The magistrate has complete discretion in these cases, but according to Dallas Police spokesman Chris Gilliam, "in the majority of them, the magistrates have been very good about giving the property back to the citizens."

Option two is a bit more interesting. Depending on how quickly the victim wants his property back, he can go to the pawn shop and bail out the stolen items. The pawnbroker gets to collect the amount of money paid to the thief who hocked the items in the first place. As a courtesy to crime victims, the pawn shops don't charge interest on the loan amounts.

The second option, says Jennifer Rieck, was painted as the most attractive--and certainly the most painless--by the police detectives investigating their case. But it certainly didn't please her.

"The way it was presented to us is that getting them out of hock was a really good deal for everyone involved," Jennifer says. "We were told the court could hold onto [the clubs] for months. Even when we got our hearing, they told us the judge has no obligation to give them to us if we don't have a receipt or some other way to positively identify them.

"I don't even think that should be an option," Jennifer says. "Why should the pawn shops make any money at all on stolen goods? It seems really shady."

Brian says he didn't like the idea much himself. But the greens beckoned, and he wanted his clubs back. So a few days after the clubs were found, he drove to Uncle Dan's Pawn Shop in Cedar Hill, paid the principal of $30, and got them back.

"I wanted to play golf before summer was half over," he says.
Many crime victims apparently reach the same conclusion as the Riecks, opting to pay out instead of waiting for the legal system to grind its way to an outcome, say local police officers.

But it is curious that police bless an arrangement which--while perfectly legal--encourages pawn shops to overlook stolen goods.

Nothing about this practice strikes the police as particularly odd, however.
"I'm not in the business of advertising for the pawn shops," says Fort Worth Police Lt. Jerry Deadman. "But they lose money when goods are stolen, too. There's a high probability they're never going to see that person with the pawn ticket again. I'd say that in most of these cases, the crime victim ends up going to the pawn shop and negotiating to get their property back. Often the victim and pawnbroker will split the difference."

April Angele, a spokeswoman for the state Office of Consumer Credit in Austin, says the practice is commonplace. While not specifically addressed by state statutes regulating pawn shops, it has "evolved" under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

"Actually, the law that covers pawn shops says a pawnbroker can only allow the original pawn ticket holder to redeem the property," Angele says. "Under the law, unless a person actually presents a ticket, the pawnbroker wouldn't even have to turn the property over. But this issue has come up, and police and pawn shops have made this an option."

So, if the Office of Consumer Credit is to be understood, it's out of the pawnbrokers' largess that the arrangement continues. They don't have to sell the property back to its owner. But they do so to make sure that everyone gets at least something out of the deal.

"The way this works, we get our money back and they get their stuff back," says David Davis, assistant manager of Uncle Dan's Pawn Shop. "The pawn shop just wants to get their principal back. We have to make a living, too."

Davis is the pawnbroker who returned Brian Rieck's golf clubs--a set of Arnold Palmers with a custom-made driver in a maroon and green leather bag.

"This was a relatively easy one because of the color of the case," Davis says. "The police get a copy of everything we do, with detailed descriptions of the property we take in. That's how they determined these clubs were stolen, by the color of the bag."

Davis says those property reports--required by state law--are the best protection pawn shops have against unknowingly trafficking in stolen goods. As for the notion that these victim-pawnbroker "arrangements" might encourage pawn shops to accept stolen goods, Davis was quick with a response. "Everything goes through the police checks. You know, we have a wide majority of people who come in who just need a loan. They need to pay the car insurance or buy school clothes for their kids."

Gilliam of the Dallas Police Department says officers who investigate property crimes are instructed to offer both options to crime victims--either going through the court system to recover their possessions or visiting the pawn shop. And Sgt. Stephen Conover says he was very clear in presenting both alternatives to Brian and Jennifer Rieck.

"We always give people both options," Conover says. But, he adds, the practice of hooking up the victim with the pawn shop "takes the police department out of the loop where we don't get accused of favoring the pawn shop or the property owner."

When a crime victim's possessions are located at a pawn shop, an automatic hold is supposed to go on the property for 60 days, says Deadman of the Fort Worth Police. That way, if the victims choose to wait for a magistrate's hearing on the property, they know their property will be safely held for them pending the outcome of the hearing.

When informed of the 60-day hold policy, Jennifer Rieck was surprised. "Absolutely not. No one told us about that. It was made very clear that it would be very inconvenient to go through the courts, and that paying the pawn shop was the best way for us to go. It was like 'well, we could technically seize the property, but you have to understand, this is the way these pawn shop guys make a living. And this way, your husband can play golf on the weekend.'"

Brian Rieck got his clubs back and was on the driving range on February 1--another long-anticipated, sun-drenched day. He, of course, is happy to have his clubs back.

Jennifer Rieck is less satisfied.
"I'm still just blown away by the whole thing," she says. "I feel like we just gave that kid who stole our stuff thirty dollars. Basically, we paid to have our property stolen. I mean, why didn't he just knock on my door and take my wallet?


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