Fiona Ma for State Assembly
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Bills would tighten screws on metal thieves

Even with a statewide law on the books intended to make it more difficult for thieves to cash in stolen metals, metal theft continues to run rampant on California farms and ranches and in cities, costing business owners, residents and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars.

"Most everybody has been hit for copper wire now," said Madera County farmer Ryan Cosyns. "It seems like these guys will find one (pump) they really like that has a good length of heavy-gauge copper, and they will come back to it again and again."

"The statewide law was great when it first came out. It made an impact initially, but just like with everything, crooks find loopholes and ways to work around the system," said Detective Ray Dominguez of the Ventura County Sheriff's Agricultural Crimes Unit. "Just like in any business, some recyclers are cooperative and helpful, and of course there's the shady element that pay in cash and try to ship the metal out as quickly as possible."

To help law enforcement combat pervasive metal theft, the California Farm Bureau Federation sponsored Assembly Bill 2298 by Assemblymember Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco. The bill creates a framework to establish regional metal-theft task forces, built on the example of regional rural crime prevention programs and the California High Technology Crimes Task Force. Local jurisdictions would be able to apply for state funding to create regional task forces to focus specifically on metal theft.

Ma's bill passed out of the Senate Public Safety Committee by a 5-0 vote and next goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"By creating the framework, there is an opportunity to capture funds from federal or other sources, to help begin the program," said Noelle Cremers, CFBF director of natural resources and commodities.

The bill contains no direct funding, she said, "but we are putting the framework and an account in place in case we are able to get federal grant funds. We're going to figure out if there are ways to fund that program for the long term."

Madera County Sheriff John Anderson said forming task forces to focus on metal theft would be helpful.

"The (California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force) has really helped us zero in on the crimes that farmers are experiencing, where before it was just a deputy taking a report and it would end up in a detective's box someplace," Anderson said. "Now, some deputies are doing it full-time. If there are some full-time deputies dedicated to just metal theft, it will be helpful."

Madera County has experienced a wide range of copper wire thefts, whether ripped out of a farmer's irrigation pumps or from stadium lights at a high school.

"At first, people thought it was just meth-heads trying to support their habit, but now we are seeing regular thieves stealing metal," Anderson said. "They are selling it someplace, so if we can shut down the market where they are salvaging it, that will slow them down a little bit."

Many metal theft victims and investigators say a 2008 metal theft law has become less effective due to lack of enforcement and to loopholes that allow thieves and unscrupulous recyclers to circumvent it. The law requires recyclers to observe a three-day waiting period before paying for scrap metal, take a picture of material being recycled, and obtain current identification and a thumbprint from sellers.

"If the laws that were on the books today were enforced, then the crooks would have a shrinking market of where to unload this stolen copper. Many of the salvage yard dealers just aren't following the law," said spokesman John Britton of AT&T, which owned telecommunications wires stolen when thieves knocked down nearly a dozen telephone poles in Madera County this spring.

Along with the Farm Bureau-sponsored bill, at least four other bills in the state Legislature address the metal theft epidemic (see sidebar story).

Grower Cannon Michael of Bowles Farming in Los Banos felt compelled to come up with his own solution this spring, after one irrigation pump had been hit repeatedly—costing $5,000 in repairs each time. He created homemade spike strips that he buried on an access road on his farm.

The spike strips shredded the tires of the car used by metal theft suspects and resulted in two arrests. Since the warning signs went up and the spike strips went in, no further metal thieves have returned to his property, he said.

"We have to protect ourselves," said Michael, who grows cotton, alfalfa, processing tomatoes and grain. "I don't want to put out spike strips, but I'm also not going to take the chance to continue to have these issues. They were coming back every two months and stealing the same set of wires."

Michael said he needed to put a stop to his metal theft problem before the season progressed.

"We've got a heat wave of 106 degrees," he said one day last week. "If it happened today and I couldn't water a field of tomatoes, that kind of damage would be hundreds of thousands of dollars."

Given the state of the economy and with many sheriff's departments experiencing funding cutbacks, Dominguez said, "everybody would benefit" from the regional task forces that would be established through AB 2298.

"We recently formed our own metal theft task force here (in Ventura). It is something that we've been working on for the last several months," said Dominguez, who serves as president of the California Rural Crime Prevention Task Force. "Metal theft is always a problem."