Pawnbroker Blues

When customers make loans on stolen property, shop owners often pay the price.

In some ways PJ's Pawn Plus is your stereotypical pawnshop. It's located in a Hanley Hills strip mall that also includes a check-cashing business, a National Rent to Own and a place offering payday loans. On a recent visit, the parking lot was littered with crushed beer cans.

Paul Taxman, the owner of PJ's, says that he runs a family-friendly business. "We think of ourselves as a pawnshop with a heart," he explains. A rotund man usually clad in khaki pants and suspenders, Taxman came to the pawning business via a degree in social work. He keeps a stocked candy machine in one corner of the store. In the back booth, he tapes baseball cards to the bulletproof glass window.

He often gives away the baseball cards to kids who come in with their parents. The adults get free scratch-off lottery tickets. "I don't want anyone to walk out empty-handed," Taxman says. "That's the social worker talking."

The Taxman frowneth: Paul Taxman says some pawnshops 
are being victimized.
Jennifer Silverberg
The Taxman frowneth: Paul Taxman says some pawnshops are being victimized.

Everything from cuckoo clocks to African masks to power saws is on display in the store that bills itself as having a "New Orleans blues feeling." There are hand-painted trompe l'oeil stones on the walls. A sign over the door to the back warehouse reads, "Rue Bourbon."

PJ's does a brisk business, with some 50 to 75 deals going down each day. Most of the transactions go smoothly, but every once in a while, a customer brings in stolen goods. That can lead to all sorts of complications.

Sitting in his eclectically decorated office, a carved African walking stick leaning against his desk, Taxman recalls a day this past summer when a customer pawned three men's rings for $650. Taxman soon got a phone call from the man's uncle, who said his nephew had stolen his rings, pawned them and then told him where they were. "He wanted his stuff back," Taxman says. "I said, 'Sir, you're welcome to get your rings, as long as you pay off the loan.'"

Instead, the uncle called the police, and earlier this month he came by the store — with an officer in tow — to pick up the jewelry.

Taxman is now out $650. "The court feels if you're a pawnbroker and you take a chance, the risk is yours," he complains. "The traditional way was the pawnshop had to eat a little crow. When it's only $20, you let it go."

What frustrates Taxman is that even when the loan is in the hundreds of dollars, the principle still applies.

He says other pawnbrokers he knows always help legitimate victims get their possessions back. But now the tables have turned. "The pawnshops are the ones being victimized," Taxman says.

While Missouri law states that pawnshop owners duped by customers can be considered victims of a crime, not everyone is willing to entertain this possibility. St. Louis Metropolitan Police Sergeant Kevin Ahlbrand says he's never filed a report listing a pawnbroker as the victim, and for one simple reason: "They're not the victim." Later, he adds, "I guess according to the strict letter of the law, they are."

Rob Lauer, director of the Missouri Pawnbrokers Association, sees Ahlbrand's attitude as part of the problem. "People don't look at the pawnbroker as a victim. So why prosecute on his behalf?"

The only recourse for a pawnbroker who loans money for stolen property is to file a civil suit. "But a civil suit, forget about it," Taxman says, adding that someone desperate enough to pawn pilfered goods probably doesn't have much money. And besides, "Why would the judge believe a pawnbroker? In all the movies, pawnbrokers are thieves and lowlifes. That's just the public image we have to deal with."

Taxman says pawnbrokers don't deserve their bad rap. "My job is just helping people," he says. "Not everyone can go to an ATM. We're fringe banking. We keep the lights on, the car running, shoes on the kids, the kids in school."

He expands on this as he walks through his warehouse, passing pool cues, stereos and four 60-inch TVs. "I'll loan on anything," he says. "Home furnishings, cowboy boots. I don't care. I really don't."

Taxman is particularly frustrated because for the past two years, he says, Missouri pawnshops have gone out of their way to assist law enforcement, mainly through a national database called LeadsOnline. Created five years ago, LeadsOnline records pawnshop merchandise transactions. Police can access the database to check for stolen items. In 2004 it became mandatory for all pawnshops in Missouri to upload their records to the database. But in return for their cooperation, Taxman says, pawnbrokers are being punished.

Lauer agrees. In the 25 years he's worked as a pawnbroker, he says, he's had 46 items confiscated by law enforcement. He adds that to the best of his knowledge, there's never been a prosecution on his behalf. Lauer brought up this very topic at a recent meeting with sixteen local pawnshop owners. "Not one person knew of a prosecution that had taken place," he says.

Lauer concedes that the prosecuting attorney's office likely has bigger fish to fry. "But in Paul's case, where he lost $650, there should be something happening there. And I bet you nothing does."

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