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Metal theft bill could be delayed by governor's office

A bill meant to stop criminals from making a quick buck from stolen metals has passed the Assembly -- although the budget impasse may delay a final stamp of approval from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, AB 844 would help law enforcement officials track stolen metals sold to scrap recyclers by forcing recyclers to keep identifying information about sellers, including their photos, thumbprints and pictures of the metal they’re turning in.

The bill passed the Assembly 77-0 last week and the Senate 34-1 earlier in August, paving the way for it to be reviewed by the governor.

Laura Ortega, Berryhill’s chief of staff, said the bill is in limbo because of the budget stalemate. Schwarzenegger had pledged that he wouldn’t sign any legislation until a state budget passed -- although last week he did sign a bill that revises the $9.9 billion high-speed rail bond measure on the November ballot.

Until the budget is passed, Ortega said no one can predict what will happen. “We just have to wait,” Ortega said. “At this point, it’s out of our hands.”

Still, Ortega said indications from Schwarzenegger’s office have been that he’ll support the bill.

The deadline for Schwarzenegger to sign it is Sept. 30. If the governor doesn’t sign the bill by then, it would automatically become law — unless he decided to veto it, Ortega said.

Under its provisions, recyclers would also have to turn the seller’s identifying information over to law enforcement officials each month.

The bill also includes a provision that would require recyclers to withhold payments from sellers for three days.According to local law enforcement officials, metal thefts have become a daily occurrence in Merced County — mainly because of the numerous farms targeted by thieves.

Copper wiring that supplies power to irrigation pumps is especially popular among thieves, as are metal pipes, siding and sprinkler system parts. The problem is also rampant at schools, hospitals, utility companies, homes and construction sites.

“There’s no serial numbers, and a lot of times a lot of the salvage companies aren’t helpful towards law enforcement,” said Tom MacKenzie, Merced County Sheriff’s spokesperson. “Anything right now is going to help because we have very little regulation.”

Metal thefts are also problem nationwide, fueled by high market prices and increased demand as a result of building booms in China and India. Investigators say the problem also plagues the Central Valley because of its large population of meth addicts looking to make a quick buck any way they can.

Ortega said the bill enjoyed such a high level of bipartisan support because there’s hardly a part of the state that hasn’t been affected. “I don’t think there’s a single member of the legislature that has not has someone in their district affected by metal theft,” Ortega said.

The bill would also require anyone convicted of stealing metal to pay restitution -- not just for what he stole but also for any collateral damage the crime may have caused. For example, stripping $50 worth of copper wire from a farmer’s irrigation pump can destroy it, costing the farmer thousands.

The legislation applies to nonferrous material, including copper, aluminum and stainless steel.

Merced County already has an anti-metal theft ordinance, but supporters of the bill say a statewide law could help deter thieves from selling their wares within city limits and in nearby counties.

Reporter Victor A. Patton can be reached at (209) 385-2431 or vpatton@mercedsun-star.com.

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