New laws aim to slow metal theft


Issue Date: October 8, 2008
Christine Souza

After multiple incidents of metal theft on his and his neighbors' pumps, San Joaquin County farmer Jeff Brown spent $30,000 on gates, locks and other security improvements to restrict access to his irrigation pumps along the San Joaquin River

For at least the last three years, farmers have suffered through a sharp increase in thefts of anything metal. Now, newly signed legislation should bring relief to those farmers and others who have lost thousands of dollars' worth of brass valves, copper wire, aluminum pipes and other metal.

In response to the rising rate of metal theft, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed several bills last week that provide law enforcement with new tools to fight thieves stealing scrap metals from agricultural equipment and utilities, as well as items such as manhole covers, fire hydrants, guardrails and more.

The bills include Assembly Bill 844 by Assembly Member Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, and Senate Bill 691 by Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

AB 844, co-sponsored by Farm Bureau, puts an end to a pattern of quick cash for metal thieves by requiring recyclers to hold payment for three days, take a thumbprint of anyone selling scrap metal, photograph the metal and document its origin. It also requires anyone convicted of metal theft to pay restitution for the materials stolen and for any collateral damage caused during the theft. Recyclers who break the law face suspension or revocation of their business licenses, and increased fines and jail time.

SB 691, which Farm Bureau also supported, is identical to AB 844.

"Combating metal theft has been a top priority for Farm Bureau on behalf of our members," said California Farm Bureau Federation Administrator Rich Matteis. "The success of these bills is very gratifying and shows how grassroots work by Farm Bureau members and staff can bring meaningful improvements in state law."

Matteis noted that both bills include urgency clauses specifying that they take effect on Dec. 1.

"We expect these bills to bring real results, real soon," he said.

Metal theft has created serious impacts statewide, but farmers have especially been targeted, mostly for irrigation equipment such as brass fittings and copper wire. San Joaquin County grower Jeff Brown, who grows winegrapes and melons near Lathrop, has been hit multiple times.

"We've had issues where we've been irrigating and we'd arrive in the morning and find that the pump is off. We realize right away that someone has come in during the night and ripped out all of the wires," Brown said. "These metal thieves not only cause an incredible amount of damage to the equipment, but these thefts result in downtime because the pump is off and out of operation."

In one instance, one of the disabled pumps had been providing irrigation water to 50 acres of melons.

"The timing of irrigations is critical and once you go away from that it can affect the quality of the crop and result in crop losses," he said. "You have to call the pump company and sometimes you have to sit a couple of days. You get behind on irrigations and then you have a lot of anxiety of whether you are going to have a crop or not. So this has been a real problem."

Merced County farmer Bill Weimer said he's glad a statewide solution for the problem of metal theft has been found.

"I think that the governor signing these bills is excellent," Weimer said. "I've been a victim of metal theft many times. I would suspect that so far this year we've had well over $12,000-$15,000 in expenses, most of which were metal theft-related. In total, the product that they stole from us probably only amounted to a few hundred dollars' worth of recycled material. But during these thefts they destroy all of the irrigation parts attached to the valves, which costs us much more to repair."

The damage that metal thieves cause goes way beyond broken equipment. Sometimes the destruction causes harm to crops, such as when thieves steal copper wire from irrigation pumps or leave water running in the field.

"One night they took valves off of one field. The system was still running and water was flooding into my row-crop field," Weimer said. "I came out the next day and had two acres of flooded ground."

As the owner of Atwater Irrigation, Weimer knows the impact that metal theft has had on his fellow farmers.

"In the spring and summer, growers continued to come in and buy valves. They said their brass valves were disappearing. I had the folks in the office track it and we had over 45 customers during that period who had one or more incidences of metal theft and had to replace valves and broken PVC," Weimer said. "From our standpoint, I sold a bunch of irrigation parts, but was that enjoyable? No it wasn't, knowing the reason why it was happening,"

Sgt. Walt Reed of the Kern County Sheriff's Department Rural Crime Investigation Unit has been dealing with the issue of metal thefts for a number of years and said he's pleased that the governor approved the bills.

"We are very excited and looking forward to being able to have a tool to combat this large problem of metal theft we've been fighting," Reed said. "It has been a problem for my entire career but it's really come to the forefront in the past three years with the high price of copper."

In the height of the summer months, Reed said he and his fellow detectives were spending 90 percent of their time on metal theft cases.

"These new laws will produce a stronger paper trail needed to catch these thieves," Reed said. "It is going to require that payment be held for three days, which takes away the instant cash that thieves now have access to. It is going to cause more work for the recycling yards, which we hope makes these businesses not as quick to receive the stolen property."

Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director Ryan Jacobsen said AB 844 enables local jurisdictions such as cities and counties to adopt even stricter regulations.

"The basic statewide policy got tougher, but at the same time it is still going to allow the local jurisdiction to set an even tougher policy," Jacobsen said. "The statewide law requires a three-day payment hold but now a local jurisdiction can say, 'Three days doesn't give our sheriff's department enough time; we need five days.' This will allow local jurisdictions to play a bigger role than what they've been able to play in the past. So this is an excellent deal."

The governor also signed three other bills to address metal-theft concerns:

SB 447 by Senator Abel Maldonado, R-Santa Maria, assists law enforcement officials in quickly investigating stolen metal and apprehending thieves by requiring scrap metal dealers and recyclers to report on a daily basis what materials are being scrapped at their facilities and by whom. These rules already apply to pawnshop dealers.

AB 1778 by Assembly Member Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, deters the theft of recyclables by requiring recyclers to obtain identifying information of individuals who bring in more than $50 worth of California Redemption Value recyclables and newspapers. It also requires that payments of $50 or more be made by check.

AB 1859 by Assembly Member Anthony Adams, R-Hesperia, discourages the theft of fire hydrant fittings and fire department connections by creating a fine of not more than $3,000 for any person who knowingly receives any part of a fire hydrant, including bronze or brass fittings and parts.

Joe Enos, who farms almonds in the Livingston and Atwater areas, said he's happy that Gov. Schwarzenegger approved the metal theft laws.

"We did our own sting," Enos said. "We took good stuff, smashed it and hauled it to one of the recyclers in Merced. They didn't even ask."

Reed said sheriff's detectives will continue to conduct reverse stings on the recycling yards, "to make sure that they are following the law."

Reed reminds farmers and ranchers to be vigilant and protect their properties.

"Anything that is out in the field, keep an eye on it and try to secure it," he said.

CFBF reports success on key bills

Gov. Schwarzenegger's final actions on key bills closely mirrored recommendations from the California Farm Bureau Federation.

Along with the bills to combat metal theft, the governor signed the following key bills that Farm Bureau sponsored or supported:

  • Assembly Bill 186 (Maze, R-Visalia) extends the Central Valley Rural Crime Prevention Program until 2012.
  • AB 541 (Huffman, D-San Rafael) protects farmers who possess insignificant or accidental amounts of patented, biotech seeds or plant material.
  • AB 2168 (Jones, D-Sacramento) provides regulatory flexibility needed for farm stands to sell value-added products such as jams, dried fruit and olive oil.
  • AB 2881 (Wolk, D-Davis) strengthens right-to-farm laws by requiring that all buyers receive disclosure notices for properties located within one mile of farmland.

The governor vetoed these bills that Farm Bureau opposed:

  • AB 2386 (Núñez, D-Los Angeles) would have denied farm employees their right to a secret-ballot election on unionization.
  • Senate Bill 974 (Lowenthal, D-Long Beach) would have imposed a new tax on cargo containers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

The governor also vetoed one key bill that CFBF supported, AB 1107 (Arambula, D-Fresno), which would have extended unemployment benefits for farm employees in drought-affected counties.

(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.