Statewide metal theft bill clears key committee


Issue Date: August 13, 2008
Christine Souza

A bill to crack down on metal theft has cleared what supporters called its "biggest challenge." With the help of a coalition of supporters including the California Farm Bureau Federation, California State Sheriffs Association, utility companies and an assortment of law enforcement agencies, cities, counties and others, the bill passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee last week.

"I am extremely pleased that after all of this effort we were able to move the bill out of committee. From the beginning we knew that Senate Public Safety was going to be our biggest challenge," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF director of natural resources and commodities. "Having a metal theft solution signed into law will stop thieves from stealing metal from our members."

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, author of Assembly Bill 844, took on the issue of metal theft after hearing from farmers who were being repeatedly hit by thieves.

"We've had story after story after story from people. (Thieves) take metal one night, then they take it another and another," Berryhill said. "This vote is a huge step towards solving the metal theft epidemic, which has plagued Californians for too long. I'm happy to join with Senator Ron Calderon and the broad range of supporters to provide a strong solution to this ongoing problem."

Berryhill said his bill will give law enforcement the tools needed to catch metal thieves.

"We're trying to deter these guys not to do it in the first place, but if they do there will be a paper trail and we can catch some of the bad guys," he said. "We think that over a period of time that it will make a difference."

Berryhill was joined at the hearing by co-author Sen. Calderon, D-Montebello, whose Senate Bill 691 is identical to AB 844.

"This crime is affecting everyone: our farmers, our schools, our cities and it threatens the safety and well-being of every Californian," Calderon told the Senate Public Safety Committee. "The issue has evolved from an expensive nuisance to a public safety nightmare."

The Public Safety Committee approved AB 844 by a vote of 5-0 after it was amended to restrict the release of a thumbprint that scrap dealers must obtain from sellers of metals.

"I think this will make it a stronger bill. We look forward to the bill passing with these amendments," said Committee Chair Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles.

AB 844 seeks to disrupt the pattern of quick cash for metal thieves by requiring recyclers to hold payments for three days. Under this bill, photographs of the individual seller and the materials being recycled will be required, thumbprints will be required from individual sellers and increased penalties will be assessed against recyclers found violating the new requirements. Additionally, restitution for materials stolen as well as for any collateral damage caused during the theft will be required of anyone convicted of metal theft.

Under the bill, cities and counties can continue to adopt and maintain their own ordinances addressing the local implications of metal theft, as long as local governments prove they have a unique circumstance and the ordinance is passed by a two-thirds vote.

For the past several years, farmers and ranchers across the state have been taking a beating due to the damage caused by metal thieves. Many have faced thousands of dollars in losses due to damaged irrigation pumps and loss of other metals used on the farm.

Stanislaus County farmer Vito Chiesa stated during a press conference last Tuesday that he has experienced numerous thefts on his family farm.

"Last year, I went out to turn on my ag pump and I realized the copper wiring had been stolen. We had it fixed, but before I could turn the pump back on the next day, the metal had been stolen again. It was $2,500 worth of damage for what people consider $60 worth of scrap metal," Chiesa said. "It is very important that we pass this."

California Citrus Mutual President Joel Nelsen, who spoke at the press conference on behalf of the state's citrus farmers, said that earlier this spring two growers were unable to start their water pumps as a result of metal thefts.

"Four pumps had to be replaced, they were so badly damaged. It was a $350,000 expenditure by these gentlemen alone," Nelsen said. "Right now our industry is facing millions of dollars in lost radiators, copper wires, the wind machines that are used to protect our citrus, the pumps that no longer work because of copper wire theft. This is an epidemic in our state across all boundaries, rural and urban."

San Joaquin County Sheriff Steve Moore added that stolen metal has been a serious problem in his county and it is such an issue that he has had to hire more deputies.

"Originally, our Ag Crimes Task Force was through a grant that created two positions for this, but because of the ongoing metal thefts, we've had to continue to add staff and currently that is up to a sergeant and eight deputies," Moore said. "The problem is huge. It does demand additional resources and is something that needs to be addressed."

This epidemic that first plagued farmers has now moved into the cities and is causing problems for public safety.

"In one incident in my district, there was a chemo radiation therapy center that was down for 10 hours and could not treat their patients because of copper theft. So, our health and safety is at risk on top of impacts to other industries," Calderon said.

AT&T representative Bill Devine said there were more than 250 reported copper thefts in California just to the AT&T communications infrastructure.

"This crime not only creates additional cost and loss of materials to AT&T, but it poses a serious public safety concern when service to customers is disrupted, specifically 911 service and other types of emergency services where our infrastructure is so essential," he added.

AB 844 now moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee. SB 691 also moved forward last week, by passing out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. It now moves to the Assembly floor.

(Christine Souza is a reporter for Ag Alert. She may be contacted at csouza@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.