She gets her stolen bike back ... for $253 from Philly pawnshop

Mary Harmer rides the bike she had to buy back from pawnshop.
Mary Harmer rides the bike she had to buy back from pawnshop.
Posted: August 20, 2010

Salvation Army worker Mary Harmer isn't out ringing any bells after discovering firsthand about a law that forces theft victims to pay to get their property back.

Harmer's bicycle was stolen last month while she was working a red kettle for the Salvation Army's Christmas in July campaign.

She scoured the Internet every day since for the bike that she saved for months to buy. This week, Harmer, 27, was ecstatic to find it had been put up for sale on eBay by a local pawnshop, Society Hill Loan and Music on South Street.

But she was less than thrilled to learn from police that she'd have to pay the pawnshop $253 to get her stolen bicycle back.

"I thought because it was mine, I wouldn't have to pay for it," she said. "I was wrong."

State law dictates that victims of theft who find their stolen goods in a pawnshop must pay the pawnbroker what he paid the thief for the item.

"Isn't that insulting? It's like she got violated again," said state Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, a Philadelphia Democrat who recently proposed new pawnshop legislation. "It's a shame because she was doing community service when her bike was stolen, and there is nothing anybody can do to help her."

Nat Leonard, owner of Society Hill Loan and Music, said he did what the law requires, including taking down the seller's identifying information when the bike was pawned.

"The thief is the one that stole it - we didn't do anything wrong," Leonard said. "There's not a reason we should be damaged here."

Harmer was told that if the thief was caught, she could try to seek the money she paid to the pawnshop as restitution from him in court.

Lt. Fran Healy, special adviser to the police commissioner, pointed out that state law governing stolen items recovered from pawnshops does not fall under the crimes code but rather under the pawnbrokers section of the banks and banking title in the state administrative code.

"Regrettably, this is not fair for victims of crimes at all, but it wasn't written with victims in mind, it was written with pawnbrokers in mind," he said. "It makes no sense in terms of common-sense stuff."

State legislation proposed this month by Brown would give police more room to place hold-orders on pawnshop items they believe to be stolen. She said it would also allow cops to hold items, pending a trial, after which time they would be returned to the rightful owner and the pawnbroker could seek restitution.

Healy said pawnbrokers might be more selective about what they buy and who they buy it from if they had to take the hit and seek restitution instead of the victim.

"It would put the onus on the business to be a much more sensible business," he said.

Despite her initial shock upon learning of the law, Harmer paid the $253 to get her bike back.

"Just the satisfaction of finding it, there was no way I was going to leave there without it," she said.

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