Bee Investigator: Keeping up with cart theft in Modesto isn't easy

snowicki@modbee.comMay 13, 2013 

    alternate textSue Nowicki
    Title: Columnist, Faith & Family reporter
    Coverage areas: Weekly consumer column, plus features and news stories
    Bio: Sue Nowicki has worked at The Bee since 1982. She earned a Bachelor of Journalism degree from The University of Missouri, Columbia, and enjoys answering readers' questions and telling their stories.
    Recent stories written by Sue

— If you've lived in Modesto for long, you've probably noticed shopping carts left everywhere — in parks, on sidewalks, in neighborhoods — as well as those containing the worldly belongings of many homeless folks.

Jim Standart of Modesto wrote to ask why, if Modesto has an ordinance against stealing and abandoning the carts, so many turn up on bike paths and elsewhere.

"If the ordinance is unenforceable, then take it off the books," he said.

There is an ordinance, amended in 2008, and it is enforced to the tune of hundreds picked up each week.

It's just that there are so many people walking away with them, it seems as though nothing is being done. It's kind of like moms who wash their kids' — and hubby's — clothes and fold them and put them back in the correct drawers, and the family members assume clean shirts and matched socks will always be readily available, even after they move away from home. They're a little shocked to find the dirty clothes still on the floor where they dropped them when mom's not around. (Hope you said thanks to your mom yesterday!)

Just because you see lots of carts doesn't mean folks aren't dealing with the problem.

Bert Lippert, who heads Modesto's Neighborhood Preservation Unit, pointed me to Title 4, Chapter 16, Articles 1-5 of the city's Municipal Code. It says (I'll give you the highly condensed version) that people face fines of $100 to $500 if they take a shopping cart from a business. And if you own a business that provides carts for your customers, it's your responsibility to keep people from stealing them, or you could face charges and fines, as well.

Isn't that a little like telling a homeowner he's at fault for "letting" a burglar into his home?

Among other things, the law says, the store owner must attach a "prominent and conspicuous" sign "at all public entrances and exits to the business" a sign that says: REMOVAL OF SHOPPING CARTS IS PROHIBITED BY LAW AND SHALL SUBJECT THE VIOLATOR TO A MINIMUM FINE OF $100. (The prominent and conspicuous capital letters are part of the ordinance. Honest.)

The city of Modesto has a shopping cart hotline — I kid you not — that folks can call to report abandoned carts. In addition, the five Neighborhood Preservation Unit officers who drive through town to address other code violations write down locations of ditched carts. Every weekday night, the city sends an email or fax to one of two retrieval companies, and those companies go out to pick up the carts and return them to the businesses that own them. The city picks up between 80 and 95 a year; the retrieval companies pick up hundreds a week, Lippert said.

"It's kind of interesting to see the path they've traveled," said Lippert. "If you go down to Santa Cruz Avenue by the railroad tracks, there are all kinds of carts from north Modesto. How did they get so far away? Man, somebody walked a long way."

He said at least two Modesto businesses — WinCo and Wal-Mart — have purchased carts that have a computer chip in them that locks the wheels if anyone tries to take them out of their parking lot.

Other business owners, such as one who asked to remain anonymous, said the shopping carts he uses cost about $135 each, and added that his business loses about 25 to 40 a year.

"We pick up our own carts when we hear from customers," he said. "I drive a truck on purpose; I even picked one up earlier today. Every once in a while, I will see one of our carts being 'used' (by a homeless person) and I will retrieve it. Usually, they are cooperative."

So what can you do to help? If you see a cart, call the hotline at (209) 342-2278.

NEXT WEEK: Synchronized traffic lights

Send questions to Sue Nowicki at, fax to (209) 578-2207 or mail to P.O. Box 5256, Modesto 95352-5256.

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