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Legislature OKs bill to curb metal theft

SACRAMENTO -- Ending two years of debate, the Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to a bill aimed at stopping metal theft, a growing problem in the Valley and elsewhere.

Metal theft is an especially troublesome crime in rural areas. Thieves cannibalize farm equipment and sell the scrap metal for quick cash, often to fuel drug habits, authorities say.

Assembly Bill 844 requires junk dealers and recyclers to collect more information from customers that could help with investigations, including thumbprints and photos of the metals being recycled. Also, customers would not get cash payments until three days after they sell the metals. Irregular customers could only be paid by check.

The Assembly approved AB 844 with a unanimous vote. Gov. Schwarzenegger is expected to sign the bill, though he has vowed to ignore most bills until lawmakers reach a deal on the state budget, now 60 days late.

Assembly Member Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, has been pushing the bill since last year. His goal was to ensure the bill did not override existing -- and in some cases tougher -- rules already in place in several counties. Recyclers resisted, fearing the proposal would open the door for local ordinances that they said would be tough to comply with.

A compromise was reached allowing local governments to enact stronger ordinances, but only if two-thirds of a board of supervisors or city council agree.

"This day has been a long time coming," Berryhill said in a statement. "No one has been spared from these criminals who strip wires from utilities, vandalize fire hydrants, steal manhole covers, destroy agricultural equipment, remove guardrails -- the list goes on and on."

Fresno County was among the counties that had tougher rules, but a state court struck down the ordinances, ruling the county went beyond what state regulations allowed. AB 844 would free the county to enact tougher laws once again.

Fresno County Supervisor Phil Larson said he expected the county would once again seek its own rules. For instance, he said all customers -- not just irregular ones -- should be paid by check. Larson, who farms in Kerman, said he has been victimized twice by thieves stealing copper wire from water pumps.