Ongoing wave of metal theft prompts further legislation
By Christine Souza
Fresno County Sheriff’s Department Ag Crimes Task Force Detective Kirby Alstrom looks over a bin of copper wire sold to recycler Bruno’s Iron and Metal in Fresno. Copper wire is a target of thieves who strip it from agricultural irrigation pumps and street lights. Law requires recycling companies to photograph and fingerprint sellers of non-ferrous metals.
Fresno County Sheriff’s Department Ag Crimes Task Force Detective Kirby Alstrom says scrap iron has been an increasing target for thieves, but pieces rarely have owner-applied numbers and returning stolen metal to victims is difficult.
With theft of metals from farms and ranches remaining a chronic problem, farm groups and law enforcement organizations support several bills intended to tighten regulations and make resale of metal more difficult for thieves.
In recent years, California farmers and ranchers have spent hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars to replace stolen metal, such as copper wiring from irrigation pumps, steel irrigation pipes and much more.
Stanislaus County almond grower Grant Davis, who is also president of GDI Insurance Agency in Turlock, has been a victim of metal theft in the past and said the problem is not going away.
"Over the years, we've had our pump stolen and a strainer—that stainless steel filter—that's cost me $1,000 to replace and they probably got $50 for it. Pretty much in general, anything you leave out or unsecured is just gone," he said.
Davis said he also lost four rows' worth of brass sprinklers, and a neighbor lost 37 acres' worth.
"It wasn't just stolen metal; they come through with baseball bats and break the pipe. Plus, they steal my golf carts, my kids' motorcycles, bicycles and even hand tools. And my whole property is fenced," he said.
As a result of the damage, Davis replaced his broken irrigation system with plastic pipes that he said don't function as well as the metal pipe.
To find the culprits in these metal theft cases and other crimes, GDI started a reward program offering up to $500 for information leading to the arrest of thieves or return of stolen property.
To combat metal theft on a larger scale, the California Farm Bureau Federation has sponsored Assembly Bill 909 by Assemblyman Adam Gray, D-Merced. The bill would create a Metal Theft Task Force Program at the Board of State and Community Corrections. When funded, the program would provide grants to local law enforcement agencies and district attorneys to focus on metal theft and recycling crimes.
"Metal theft continues to be a problem for farmers and ranchers throughout California. Farm Bureau is sponsoring AB 909 to provide additional tools to local law enforcement to focus on metal theft. It is important that California have a statewide task force to address metal theft," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF director of natural resources and commodities.
"Thieves will sell stolen metal wherever they can get away with it," Cremers said. "AB 909 will help stop the practice of stealing metal in one area and selling it in another, by providing law enforcement agencies throughout California help in addressing metal theft."
AB 909 has passed unanimously out of the Assembly Public Safety Committee and will be heard by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on Friday.
The Fresno County Sheriff's Department reports losses due to metal theft reached $1.11 million for the first quarter of 2013—a sum greater than the entire annual loss for some past years. Fresno County Sheriff's Ag Task Force Detective Kirby Alstrom, a metal theft investigator for about nine years, said while copper wire remains a metal of choice for many thieves, he is now seeing more thefts of scrap iron.
"In the past two or three years, scrap iron has gone through the roof as far as price, so they are stealing farming implements—your plows, cultivators, tractors, forklifts—anything made out of metal," Alstrom said. "They are taking not only legitimate scrap, but also good, usable equipment and cutting it all up, destroying it and selling it."
One of the biggest problems for rural crime detectives, Alstrom said, is identifying the metal at the recycling centers.
"Even when we do find out about it right away and we get to the yard and we're looking at it, we're saying, 'This has got to be the stuff,' but we're not sure because it has changed so drastically. It has either been cut up or altered in other ways to make it unrecognizable to us," Alstrom said.
Other bills aim to stop a proliferation of "metal laundering," involving sellers who have met the criteria to be paid the same day rather than waiting for the three-day period required by state law. Authorities say some of those sellers improperly buy stolen metal from thieves that they then sell to recyclers.
- Senate Bill 485 by Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, would ensure that recyclers and junk dealers comply with current law and are properly permitted to operate their businesses. It would give county agricultural commissioners and sealers the authority to inspect the records of junk dealers and recyclers, and issue citations if they are found to be violating the law. The bill was unanimously approved by the Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee and will be considered this week by the Senate Appropriations Committee.
- SB 757 by Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, would exempt secondhand dealers from regulations pertaining to junk dealers and recyclers. Berryhill said he plans to amend SB 757 to include improvements to the current recordkeeping and payment requirements for junk dealers and recyclers that were put in place by his metal theft law that took effect in 2008. SB 757 now awaits hearing on the Senate floor.
- AB 841 by Norma Torres, D-Pomona, would require junk dealers and recyclers to pay for all nonferrous metal purchases by check and eliminate quick cash for metal. The bill passed the Assembly and now awaits hearing by the Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee.
Almond farmer Gray said that when he attended Farm Bureau meetings in Stanislaus and Merced counties, "farmers always ranked metal theft as a top issue. We need to ensure law enforcement has the resources to combat metal theft."
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.