Nail those dreaded Dumpster divers now

01/13/2008 2:55 AM

01/13/2008 2:58 AM

Imagine being so destitute that your next meal comes from someone else's trash can.

Nachos, the tortilla chips soggy from three days of bathing in cheese, salsa and clotted sour cream.

A half-eaten burger still in its fast food wrapper, plucked from beneath a stack of discarded People magazines.

Or having to scrounge for aluminum cans and other recyclables to turn in for cash.

And imagine being arrested for it.

Conversely, you own a home and a car or two. Your home burglar alarm sounds while you're out. Or your Toyota Camry vanishes from a store parking lot. You call 911.

The police probably won't respond -- at least not with any urgency -- unless they're sure there's a crime in progress.

Why? Because, in theory, they'll be out slapping the 'cuffs on the dining Dumpster divers.

Last week, cracking down on Dumpster divers became a higher priority. At the Police Department's urging, the Modesto City Council adopted a new ordinance allowing officers to arrest Dumpster divers. The offenders can be charged with a misdemeanor, issued a citation carrying a $500 fine, or both.

The cops and council said identity theft demanded the new ordinance, and the council passed it by a 5-2 vote. I'm for anything that prevents identity theft and strongly punishes the identity thieves. The best way to do that is to eliminate their opportunities to steal the documents they need to turn your life upside down.

And yes, Dumpster diving contributes to blight, involves health risks and is an intrusion people in most neighborhoods find offensive. Some rummagers aren't so polite as to put everything they don't want back into the trash container. Nor are they the most self-disciplined and organized lot. They litter the alleys and go on their not-so-merry way. It represents one of those societal ills we'd all like to see simply go away.

Still, I suspect more ID theft comes from the U.S. mail, vehicle registration from car break-ins and computer hackers than from Dumpster divers. Locking mailboxes and glove boxes often works better than unenforceable laws. So will keeping your computer's security software up to date.

On Friday, California State University, Stanislaus, officials said people who bought food on campus using a bank or credit card might have had their information stolen because of a breach in the food vendor's computer server.

Considering how much attention ID theft generates these days, people know there's a risk in simply tossing documents bearing Social Security and account numbers into the trash bin instead of shredding them. They do it anyway, assuming nothing bad can ever happen to them. Guess what?

Likewise, businesses handling such information for their clients need to bear some responsibility. Rod Olsen, husband of Councilwoman Kristin Olsen, became an ID theft victim when a brokerage firm he trusted with personal information discarded documents using a commercial garbage bin instead of a shredder. You can understand why the councilwoman was among the five who voted for the ordinance.

But after making a few arrests to drive home their point, how much staff time will the police really want to dedicate toward enforcing it?

In September 2006, the police decided they no longer would respond to burglar alarms unless they were certain a crime was in progress. Too costly, they said, because 99 percent of the alarms were false and it was tying up officers who needed to respond to real emergencies. Fair enough.

Respond to a stolen car report? There are too many of those, too, even though we no longer lead the nation in auto thefts. I'd contend that as long as your car is still missing, the crime's still in progress. But the sheer volume drains department resources.

Now they want to take on Dumpster divers at a time when the city's budget woes prohibit the police from filling 25 vacant positions, with more potential fiscal pain in the offing as Gov. Schwarzenegger tries to pare $14.5 billion from the state's budget.

He also wants to release 22,159 low-risk offenders early from the prisons. Seventy percent of them will return to the pokey, if the state's recidivism rate holds true, and it won't be for Dumpster diving. The police will be busier, with the same or fewer number of officers on the streets.

Consequently, the new ordinance merely will give the police the legal power to do something they won't have the staff to do.

And a $500 fine? The only Dumpster divers who could pay that are the ones who steal your ID, forge a check and drain your bank account.

A council ban on breathing would be about as effective.

The Dumpster diving ordinance might seem, for a fleeting moment, like an enhanced crime-fighting tool. But in reality, it's just another piece of paper.

The least they can do is shred it.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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