Theft victims frustrated when recovered items held hostage

Crime victims want law changed

By Vic Micolucci , Jodi Mohrmann

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - (WJXT)---It's bad enough to have your stuff stolen, but crime victims can also become frustrated when they cannot get their recovered property back.

When stolen items end up at a pawn shop and the rightful owners can prove ownership, they can't simply retrieve their property. Stolen items are often put "on hold" as evidence for police and prosecutors to pursue their cases.

While many understand their items become evidence in a crime, some victims said they don't understand why their property often sits on hold at pawn shops and in evidence rooms while they suffer.

"I went in to take a break and go to the bathroom and get something to drink and about a half an hour, I came back and it was gone," said Frank Reiss.

Frank and his wife, Sue, were the victims of a burglary in broad daylight. They admit their garage was open while they were home, but a thief stole their $500 pressure washer.

"What are we supposed to do?" Sue asked.

The couple called the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and filed a report and the next day police tracked their pressure washer to a pawn shop on the Westside.

Records from Partners Pawn and Jewelry show Thomas Steele, 29, cashed in the pressure washer for $75.

"They have to provide their fingerprints and then we validate their identification," explained Jim, the pawn shop's owner and manager.

Police said Steele signed that he owned the pressure washer and left the pawn shop with cash, but, the serial number proved Steele lied. When employees entered the serial number into a police-monitored database, it came up stolen, but Jim explains the process of checking isn't instant.

"Yes, within 24 hours everything we have in store can be seen by any detective and/or officer. And in most cases with today's technology, it's available on their squad car," Jim added.

Officers tracked down Steele and he was arrested.

Problem solved, right? Wrong. The pressure washer was placed into evidence in Steele's criminal case and while records show he admitted to pawning the item, he denied stealing it.

So, the Reiss' couldn't get their pressure washer back. Instead, it sat at the police warehouse for months.

"We don't really want to go out and buy one when you know we have the serial number and they found it. They have it. The unit is there, but we can't get it," Reiss told the I-TEAM.

"And we're retired now for 4 years and I don't have an extra $550 sitting around," added Sue.

The Reiss' say prosecutors told them to be patient. According to Florida's statute, the power washer couldn't be returned until the court case was over. It took six months.

While Steele's burglary charge was dropped, he did plead guilty to pawning the item. But still, no pressure washer. The Reiss' had to keep waiting.

"Which is not right," Frank said.

Jim, the pawn shop's owner, said it was out of his hands. He had no control over it since it was a criminal investigation. He says he lost money, too.

"We actually become the victim in this case so that way, the person who was convicted then owes us in restitution the money we lose," Jim said.

Representatives with the State Attorney's Office and JSO said it was now up to the judge to sign an order to give back the stolen pressure washer.

"We did everything we could possibly do," Frank said.

The Reiss' say the laws are backward, and argue the victims are being punished for something that wasn't their fault.

"And it's like they were protecting the thief, they protected the pawn shop, but we the owners -- who bought the thing -- they don't care," Sue said.

A judge eventually signed off and the couple finally got their pressure washer back.

Wes Thomas has the same problem. He owns a mechanic shop in Northwest Jacksonville and his diagnostic computer was stolen in February.

Paperwork shows he purchased the computer in 2014 for $6,459. No one has been arrested for stealing it, but he found his computer at a pawn shop up the road.

"It's my computer," Thomas said he told the employees. "They said, 'No it's not.' I said, 'Yes, it is.' And I pulled out my ID numbers and showed it to them and called the police."

But according to the law, the computer is now the pawn shop's property, because without an arrest, the case isn't prosecutable.

"They're trying to tell me that I need to locate the person who took it," Thomas said.

Cash America's manager said the computer is on hold and not on the shelves for the time being, and Thomas can't do anything with it. But the state statutes say, if Thomas wants it, he could try to buy it back from the pawn shop.

"I don't think I should have to pay for something that was taken from me that I have already bought," said Thomas.

Because Thomas still doesn't have his computer back, he has had to spend another $6,500 on a new one. It's putting a real strain on his small business budget.

"I need it. It helps me in my business. Bottom line, it is important," said Thomas. "I'm aggravated with the way the system is."

Both Thomas and the Reiss' are trying to let people know what happened -- hoping laws change more in the victims' favor.

Police and prosecutors their hands are tied by the law and they have to follow it. But, they do say they try to work with victims on a case-by-case basis, and if they can help, they will.

State Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, says he understands why people are frustrated and will take another look at the law and talk to his staff this week to see if there's anything they can do to make it easier for victims.

State Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, helped amend the Pawnbroker Act years back, to make it clearer. She said she knows it is inconvenient and time-consuming for the victim, but there is a process in place. She says if the case isn't prosecuted, the property's owner can file in court to get the item back from the pawn shop -- with the fees waived. Eventually, she says the law is designed to make the victim whole, even though the people we spoke with think the pawn shops get more of an advantage.

Under Florida law, anyone who has property on hold at a pawn shop may send a certified notice to the pawnbroker with proof of ownership, such as a receipt with serial number.

If the victim does not reach an agreement with the pawnbroker, then the victim can file a claim in county court against the pawnbroker. Florida law says court costs and filing fees are waived. More details are contained in the Florida statute.

Gibson adds, if someone has problems with the law, they can reach out to her office and she'd be happy to re-examine the statute. You can reach Gibson in Jacksonville at 904-359-2553. You can also email her through her official website.

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