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Pawnbrokers cry foul

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A newly amended city law that orders pawn shops to report customer names, driver’s license numbers and their physical characteristics to a national online database is prompting outrage among area pawnbrokers who say it treats their clients as criminals.

“Imagine Target did this,” says Ericka Hughes, who owns Riverside Pawn and also Cash Reserve with her husband Brian. “It seems very unfair.”

In July, the Missoula City Council amended the municipal pawn ordinance to require businesses collect information about goods pawned or sold, in addition to associated customer names and identifying characteristics, such as eye color, height and weight, and upload it to a database called LeadsOnline, which is accessible by some 2,100 law enforcement agencies. Council approved the changes after hearing from the Missoula Police Department that it would make tracking stolen goods across jurisdictional boundaries easier.

Before the amendments went into effect Oct. 20, Missoula pawnbrokers voluntarily provided weekly transaction reports to police, detailing what goods they received and from which customers. While those reports included driver’s license information, Brian and Ericka Hughes worry the new mandate leaves their clients vulnerable to data breaches akin to those seen this summer at Albertsons and Home Depot. “And this is information that’s arguably more sensitive than just your name and debit card number,” Ericka says.

The Hughes note that, while the city argued the ordinance would help fight crime, National Pawnbrokers Association statistics show that less than half of 1 percent of all industry transactions involve stolen goods. That data has business owners accusing the city of exhibiting an “economic bias” for no good reason. “Our customers have a right to privacy,” Ericka says.

Alderwood Estate and Loans pawnbroker Jeremy Watterson agrees. He argues further that the ordinance runs contrary to a Montana statute forbidding municipalities require firearms registration.

“I don’t see how the city could possibly say LeadsOnline is not a firearms registry,” Watterson says.

In response, Missoula City Attorney Jim Nugent says the amended ordinance evolved from a long-standing state law that requires pawn shops document transactions and make them available on demand to law enforcement. Based on that statute, Nugent says all information recorded by pawnbrokers is considered public.

“You’re in a public record realm,” he says, “as soon as you contact the city.”

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