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Man carrying copper runs into trouble

Joseph Smither, 41, waits on a bench on Regency Park Boulevard in Port Richey as Pasco County Deputy Kevin Stevenson and forensic investigator Denice Weigard examine copper Smither was carrying. Smither said he was on his way to recycle the copper.

MICHELE MILLER | Times

Joseph Smither, 41, waits on a bench on Regency Park Boulevard in Port Richey as Pasco County Deputy Kevin Stevenson and forensic investigator Denice Weigard examine copper Smither was carrying. Smither said he was on his way to recycle the copper.

PORT RICHEY — On a late sunny morning, two blocks south of his home, Joseph Smither became a man under suspicion.

For that, he had to relinquish nearly 12 pounds of copper to the authorities.

"I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "Maybe figure out what my civil rights are or something."

It started Monday when Smither, 41, of Port Richey was walking on the sidewalk along Regency Park Boulevard. He carried two coiled rolls and a smaller piece of copper.

A Pasco sheriff's patrol car pulled up behind him. The deputy had a question: Where did Smither get that copper? This was not a baseless question: Copper thefts, particularly from air conditioning units, are on the rise.

Here was Smither's story: He thinks he bought the copper almost a year ago when he was working for his father as an air-conditioning repairman. He kept it on top of a toolbox inside their garage. He was carrying it to a nearby metal recycling facility on Ridge Road. He hoped to get about $40 for it.

"Buy some dog food, cigarettes, bus fare," Smith, who does not have a driver's license, later told a reporter.

The deputy did not buy the story. He suspected the copper had been stolen. It looked too shiny to have sat under a garage for nearly a year. Smither could not remember which wholesale dealer sold him the copper, and he could not produce a receipt.

"His story was not adding up," said Kevin Doll, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office.

So the deputy asked Smither to stay put. The copper was placed in the middle of the sidewalk. "They said, 'Don't go anywhere, and don't touch that (the copper),' " Smither said.

A second deputy arrived and parked his vehicle in the middle turn lane. A forensic investigator arrived, armed with gloves and a brown paper bag.

Smither said they ran his name through the criminal database. He has a lengthy arrest record; most recently, last month, he was convicted of grand theft.

"I'm no angel," he said. But this copper, he said, was his. He said he'd kept it in good condition by keeping it out of the elements.

As he watched, the forensics investigator took photographs of the copper. She opened up the paper sack and gently laid the copper in it. The copper was now being taken into evidence.

Not that copper comes with a serial number or anything. Doll said authorities will use a variety of techniques — some physical testing that he would not describe, plus interviews with victims of recent copper thefts — to see if the copper is stolen.

If investigators can't determine that the copper was stolen, Smither may get it back.

"I think that's theft right there," said Smither of the investigators keeping the copper. "They'll tie it up for six months or a year."

Smither also questioned why he should need a receipt when he's walking down the street.

His father, Ronnie Smither, told the Pasco Times that his son had indeed worked for his family air-conditioning company until recent months when he got sick. (Joseph Smither said he suffers from a bone disease.)

Ronnie Smither said he sometimes takes scraps from his jobs and throws them in the garage, where they are protected from the elements. He told his son he could recycle some of it to pick up some extra cash.

"I couldn't see where they had the right to stop him," said Ronnie Smither.

Did they?

The seizure of property requires probable cause, which basically means an officer, through his training and experience, "reasonably believes" something to be the case, said J. Larry Hart, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.

Doll said that because of a number of factors — the condition of the copper and Smither's inability to remember where he got it — that the deputy did meet that standard.

"If we suspect it's stolen goods," he said, "we can confiscate it."

Smither called the case "unbelievable." His father agreed but said he wishes his son had not walked down the street with a load of copper.

"He should have waited," he said, "and let his mom drive him."

Jodie Tillman can be reached at jtillman@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6247.

Man carrying copper runs into trouble 07/28/08 [Last modified: Saturday, August 2, 2008 7:58am]

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