Editor's note: The original version of this story reported that the City Council would likely consider the secondhand sales database ordinance on Tuesday. Ald. Mike Verveer, who is proposing the ordinance, says he now plans to schedule the proposal for an October council meeting. The orginal story also reported incorrectly that those selling books would be entered onto the police database. The ordinance maintains the current system of secondhand dealers keeping paper records on hand for six months. That pertains to textbooks only.
Have some CDs or movies you want to get rid of? Under a proposed Madison city ordinance, if you sell them to a secondhand store your personal information and a photo will be entered into a police database. And that has raised concerns from local business owners and civil rights advocates.
The proposal is designed to catch addicts and crooks who go to secondhand stores and pawn shops to unload stolen goods like computers, TVs, iPods and other commonly pilfered items for cash. But a provision in the proposal, which passed the city Public Safety Review Committee on Wednesday on a 4-1 vote, also contains language that would include CDs, movies, books on tape and other media. The ordinance will likely be considered by the City Council next month.
It would require a photo and other personal information about anyone who sold an item to a business to be included in the database, allowing police to see what movies they watch, what music they listen to and what computer games they play.
"These are really big flags with the ACLU," says Stacy Harbaugh of the Madison chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin.
Harbaugh says there's nothing in the law that would keep the police from sharing the information with the FBI or other law enforcement agencies.
"The ACLU's position is quite simply that we don't need another government database that's connected to our tastes and our choices for intellectual and entertainment options," she says. "We hope that the City Council will amend the ordinance -- that they'll take out the lines that include the expressive materials. And we hope that people will call their representatives and remind them to do that."
Similar database systems exist in other Wisconsin municipalities, including Greenfield and Milwaukee. But electronic media are exempt from the database records, except in Greenfield where DVDs and other visual media are included.
"There was concern about bulk theft of new-release material," says Greenfield Police Detective Sgt. Mike Brunner.
Downtown Ald. Mike Verveer, who authored the Madison proposal, says he's looking at ways to address the privacy concerns and will alter the ordinance before it goes to the council.
State law requires secondhand sellers to keep paper records on hand about who sells them items, and that includes textbooks, CDs and computer games and other media. The ordinance would maintain the current paper records system for textbooks, which secondhand shops must keep on hand for six months, but people selling other media would be entered into the database.
Some say placing that information on a database with a photo not only constitutes an invasion of privacy, but would kill small businesses that depend on secondhand goods.
Dave Stanowski, owner of Madcity Music Exchange on Williamson Street, says that when people realize they will have to have their picture and personal information included on a database, they'll quit coming in.
"We depend on revenue from people bringing in their products to sell to us, and that would effectively kill it," he says.
And Sandi Torkildson, owner of A Room of One's Own bookstore, thinks the ordinance violates basic First Amendment freedoms.
"I'm just a person who's passionate about what kind of information we allow the police to hold on us," she says. "This is not something I think is appropriate or necessary."
She says that while she abides by the law and keeps records of the few people who bring their textbooks into her store, she has no intention of ever giving that information to authorities.
"I'll keep the records because I have to, but when you come to my store and ask me for that information you'll have to take me to jail because I'm not going to give them to you," she says.
Assistant Madison city attorney Steven Brist, who drafted the ordinance, says it would be "legally possible" to move most merchandise into the database system and retain the paper system for electronic media, but dealers of such items would have to continue to keep records. Indeed, he says, the state requires sales of all such items to be recorded, but in Madison they're required to keep records only on sales of $20 or more, which appears to be at odds with state law, an issue that will probably have to be addressed.
Privacy concerns aside, many in the buy-and-sell industry, including Torkildson and Stanowski, think the database is a needed step to deter sales of stolen items.
"There's definitely some different kind of tracking needed in the industry," says Ricardo Paoli, owner of Rick's Old Gold, a buy-and-sell shop on Williamson Street.
Capt. Jim Wheeler, head of the Madison Police Department's investigative services, says the paper system in place currently is too cumbersome when dealing with what may be hundreds of thousands of transactions a year, many of them for commonly stolen items like GPS systems, TVs, computers, iPods and other electronic goods.
"We need to work in a timely manner," he says. "Plus, we need to have a deterrent effect. People need to know that if they're going to take stolen goods someplace, the serial numbers are going into a database and this is going to be matched up with things that are reported stolen."
He says the police department has tested databases at two local stores, one of which conducted over 48,000 transactions over a year, and the other over 30,000. Just this week investigators entered the names of three heroin addicts with criminal records into the system, which turned up one person who sold 47 Wii game controllers within a month.
"This is an example of what we would be able to get from the system," he says.