Legislators seek ways to slow rural metal thefts

Issue Date: May 23, 2012
By Cecilia Parsons

For metal thieves, the potential rewards are high, new laws can be circumvented and jail time is a long shot, according to testimony at a legislative hearing last week.

Metal thefts now represent 85 percent of all rural crimes, reported Fresno County District Attorney Elizabeth Egan at a hearing in Fresno called by state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee. The hearing sought suggestions for changes in policy or legislation that would give farmers relief from escalating rural larceny.

Farmers who spoke at the hearing related how thieves hit their operations numerous times, often inflicting thousands of dollars in damage while stealing wire from irrigation pumps or brass sprinkler valves. Losses are much greater than the value of the items stolen, said Cannon Michael, a Los Banos-area farmer, and thefts bring the potential for significant crop loss if pumps cannot be repaired quickly or fields flood.

To try to stem the tide of metal thefts, Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, sponsored successful legislation in 2008 that created roadblocks for thieves and enlisted help from recycling businesses.

Four years later, prices for recycled metal again make the risk worth the effort.

Witnesses at the hearing said thieves have found loopholes in the law that allow them to continue trading stolen metal for quick cash. There has been a huge increase in the number of unlicensed "rogue" recyclers and a higher threshold for felony grand theft has gone into effect. Added to the mix are county jails filled with offenders from state prisons—the realignment of the corrections system due to state budget cuts.

"These crimes are tied to drug use," Fresno County Sheriff Margaret Mims said. "They know they won't get jail time—we're inundated with realignment inmates."

Sgt. Mike Chapman of the Fresno County Sheriff's Department said Berryhill's 2008 legislation helped, but it needs some fine-tuning.

The single biggest change he recommended is a lower threshold for felony charges. Changes in law make the crime a felony only when the value of the metal exceeds $950. Thieves caught in the fields or when they attempt to recycle their stolen goods for cash often have less than $950 worth of metal, making the crime a misdemeanor even if they have caused thousands of dollars in damage to equipment.

Although some jurisdictions prosecute metal thefts as felony vandalism cases to cope with that restriction, Chapman said he would like to see the damage total added to the value for felony theft prosecutions.

Another part of the 2008 legislation allows a person who is a frequent customer at a recycling business to be paid in cash without a three-day wait. What happens, Chapman said, is that rogue or itinerant dealers pay thieves in cash, and then take the materials to the legitimate recycling businesses themselves. Without business addresses or licenses, rogue recyclers are difficult to track.

For the most part, Chapman said, the legitimate recycling businesses follow the law and cooperate with law enforcement.

Adam McEwen of the Madera County Sheriff's Department Ag Crimes Unit said it is discouraging when he has to tell crime victims that an arrest can't be made or that if an arrest is made, the thief will be back on the street very quickly.

Madera County has only a few legitimate recycling businesses, but itinerant dealers are becoming very common, he said.

"They typically scrap for a living and they buy from others. They pay cash and there is no paper trail," McEwen said. "It's a guy in a pickup and a guy on a bicycle meeting on the street like a drug deal."

McEwen noted that his partner in the Ag Crimes Unit was not able to attend the hearing because he was investigating a new metal theft case that involved gunfire. Local media reported last week that a Madera County farmer confronted two thieves who were attempting to steal metal pipe. One thief shot at the farmer when he interrupted the theft.

Michael, one of several growers who spoke at the hearing, made headlines recently when he revealed he had placed spike strips on his property to catch thieves, after numerous thefts from his property.

"We're devolving into the Wild West out there," Michael said.

Sanger-area farmer Bill Boos said an informal meeting among fruit growers in his area revealed that out of 36 in attendance, 35 had been victims of theft. Boos said farmers in the area have formed a patrol group to watch for theft.

The level and sophistication of metal theft grows with the value of copper, confirmed John Sacco, chairman of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and owner of large recycling businesses in Kern County. Metal by weight is now the No. 1 export of the U.S., he added.

Sacco, who said he supports lowering the threshold for felony grand theft, said all responsible recyclers want rogue dealers out of business. Not only do they cut into his business, he said, but they pay none of the costs, do not comply with environmental rules and don't report income. Unfortunately, he said, there are legitimate businesses that deal with unlicensed recyclers.

He urged legislation that would guarantee jail time.

The state Legislature is currently discussing several bills that aim to slow the metal-theft epidemic.

Assembly Bill 1508 closes a loophole that has allowed recyclers to make immediate payments for copper and copper alloys, if they're recycled with beverage containers and the value of the metal totals less than $20. AB 1971 sets fines for recyclers who accept property they should know is likely stolen. AB 2003 allows payment by check only. Senate Bill 1387 prohibits possession of fire hydrants, manhole covers or other metal items likely to be stolen from utility companies or municipalities.

In addition, the California Farm Bureau Federation has sponsored AB 2298, which will take additional steps to address the issue of metal theft.

(Cecilia Parsons is a reporter in Ducor. She may be contacted at ceciliaparsons8@gmail.com.)

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