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Texas Ops Target Piracy Loopholes

4/18/1999 8:00 PM Eastern

Texas cable operators, faced with annual losses pegged at
$200 million, are taking a unique approach to closing loopholes in the state's
theft-of-service statue.

Operators are seeking amendments to the state's
existing cable-piracy statue that would actually downgrade residential theft of service
from a "Class-B" to a "Class-C" misdemeanor, making it the equivalent
of a traffic violation under Texas law.

Even so, the change represents an "upgrade" of
the law, since it would make it easier to prosecute cable-theft cases that usually go
unheard, said Bill Arnold, president of the Texas Cable Telecommunications Association.

A Class-B misdemeanor is the responsibility of the Texas
District Court, where prosecutors tend to concentrate on more high-profile cases. A
Class-C offense, however, comes under the jurisdiction of justices of the peace or city
courts, which handle traffic violations, and which would be more inclined to pursue
cable-theft complaints.

For years, operators have had trouble getting their
theft-of-service cases prosecuted because they were a "step above" where they
needed to be, Arnold said.

"If you go to a district court prosecutor with a $100
theft-of-cable case, he's going to tell you, 'I've got this robbery, or
murder, or rape case, and they have a greater call on my 24-hour day,'" Arnold
added. "But if you make it the equivalent of a traffic ticket, a justice of the peace
or city court routinely hears those kind of cases."

The trade-off would be in the severity of the penalty.
Under Texas law, a Class-B offense is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and 180 days in
jail, while a Class-C misdemeanor calls for a fine not to exceed $500.

The industry also wants to amend the law to make it a
Class-C misdemeanor to accept advertising from individuals trying to peddle illegal cable
devices. "We want to make it as difficult as possible for the guy who's got a
black box to get it into your hands," Arnold said.

Arnold predicted that the industry has a shot at getting
the changes that it wants. "So far, there's been no opposition, or anybody bent
out of shape and screaming about how horribly they're being treated," he said.

Ron McMillan, division president for Time Warner Cable in
Houston, said the proposal would also remove the intent provision in the existing law that
allows cable pirates to claim that they were unaware that they had illegal hookups.

McMillan could have used that change in 1997, when an audit
of the Houston system turned up 21,000 illegal hookups, or 3.8 percent of 545,000 homes
passed.

Even after they'd been disconnected, a second audit
found that 3 percent of those homes simply reconnected, McMillan said.

September