The Nazi Gestapo required Jews to wear a Star of David for identification; that’s like the current bills requiring pawnshop customers to leave a thumbprint when they hock goods. Such was the comparison that Joe Majors, a lobbyist for the Tennessee Pawnbrokers Association, recently made to state lawmakers.
Whether it was a hard-hitting metaphor or a slip of the tongue, Majors’ statement to the Senate Commerce Committee last week bumped and bounced like a well-shot pinball careening back through 3,000 years of history.
“The truth of the matter is that they believe that most pawnbrokers and their customers are criminals,” Majors says. By “they,” he means police chiefs, district attorneys general, big-city mayors, and the Tennessee Municipal League, all of whom say the thumbprint bills are a top priority this year.
To illustrate his point, Majors cites the case of a Nashville businessman who owns several pawnshops in four Tennessee citiesNashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Clarksville. One day the owner visited one of his Chattanooga pawnshops, and the manager of that shop introduced him to a police sergeant who was there.
“The sergeant refused to shake the owner’s hand,” Majors says, “and the sergeant said to this owner: ‘Half of the people who come through the front door of this pawnshop are crooks, and I’ve arrested half of them.’ ”
The heated showdown between pawnbrokers and local governments reverberates with feelings and words that have been kicked around since pawnbroking, humankind’s oldest financial institution, began in ancient China at least three millennia ago. Across that span of time, pawnbrokers have seldom had good press.
In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church considered it a sin to practice usurydefined as charging any interest whatsoever on lent money. It was one of those sins that obviously got redefined as time went along and certain influential Catholics began to realize what they were missing. Jews, in turn, took up the profession for three primary reasons: They were not bound by the laws of the Church, Christian oppression kept them out of many other professions, and they had to make a living somehow.
Because of that, a disproportionate number of Jews practiced pawnbroking for centuries to come. Often, prejudice against Jews became prejudice against pawnbrokers. Pile on top of that the pervasive human desire to trash anyone, big or small, Jew or gentile, who loans money.
Despite all this, the law-enforcement community insists that the only reason for the current thumbprint bills is to help identify burglarsand perhaps even rapists and murderers. Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson cites the recent case of an alleged rapist who was apprehended after pawning jewelry belonging to one of his victims. And Knoxville police Lt. Eddie Biggs told a legislative committee that accused killers there pawned some of their victim’s property “before the body was cold.”
However, both Johnson and Biggs fail to mention that thumbprinting played no part in either of these cases, because it has not yet been authorized in the cities in question. Memphis has had a pawnshop thumbprint requirement for 33 years, in spite of two opinions by the state attorney general saying it is unconstitutional because state law does not authorize it. The pawnshop industry claims that even with the Memphis thumbprint requirement, the recovery of stolen goods is no greater there than in cities where thumbprints are not taken.
While thumbprints were not a factor in the cases cited by Johnson and Biggs, what was a factor is a process that has been going on for many years throughout Tennessee and other states. There are some 14,000 pawnshops nationwide461 of them in Tennesseeand they have long been required to make daily reports to police listing the descriptions and, if possible, the serial numbers of all items pawned. They must also keep on hand, and make available to police, general information (name, age, address, etc.) of people hocking goods.
But thumbprinting, police maintain, would help by allowing them to match stolen goods with the identification of whoever pawned the goods. And these local officials express dismay, and a little bitterness, that some legislators have any questions about thumbprinting.
“Criminal activity is going on in every major city in this state,” Biggs told a House committee that ultimately delayed passage of the thumbprinting bills. “The [legislators] have done an injustice to our citizens, and they’ve done an injustice to our communities.”
On the other hand, Rep. Rob Briley, a Nashville Democrat, and Hispanic attorney Mario Ramos are among those who oppose the thumbprinting bill because they see it as an unnecessary government intrusion into the lives of citizens, most of whom are poor. “Pawnshops are a way of life for immigrant families, and for many this is the only form of loan available to them,” Ramos said in a statement.
“The thumbprinting requirements in these bills criminalize low-to-moderate-income people who rely on pawnshops for short-term, low-sum loans and people who purchase items from these shops,” Briley said. “Further, the government must have a compelling reason to infringe on the constitutionally protected rights of citizens like this, and there is no such reason here.”
The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee is monitoring the various thumbprinting bills and has shared its information with the lobbyists involved, says Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the ACLU of Tennessee. She says the bills raise concerns about privacy.
“Typically, when a person enters a store, they don’t expect to have their fingerprint taken,” Weinberg says. “Customers entering pawnshops shouldn’t be treated any differently unless there is probable cause to believe that a crime has been committed. Customers of pawnshops should have the expectation of privacy and have the right to assume they will be guaranteed equal protection under the law.”
Joseph Sweat is a volunteer lobbyist for the ACLU.
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