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Senate panel junks bill targeting metal theft

SACRAMENTO — A bill aimed at stopping metal theft was defeated by a Senate panel this week amid lobbying by recyclers and junk dealers.

Assembly Bill 844 targeted the growing problem of thieves turning in stolen scrap metal for quick cash. The bill would have required that dealers beef up record keeping and pay for some metals with checks. The goal was to ensure better tracking if the metals later were found to be stolen.

But the legislation got caught up in a debate on local control and was killed this week by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee.

Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, the bill's sponsor, wanted to ensure that it did not override existing, and in some cases, tougher, rules in place in several counties, including Fresno, Tulare, Kern, Kings, Madera and Sacramento.

In April, the Stani-slaus County Board of Supervisors approved a tough ordinance that can curb scrap metal theft, said Supervisor Jim DeMartini.

The county ordinance:

Requires scrap metal dealers to pay for metal with checks, not cash

Limits recycling business operating hours from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Requires background checks for scrap metal dealers

Requires fingerprints for everyone trying to sell scrap metal, plus they have to be 18 or older

Requires dealers to report the previous day's transactions to the Stanislaus County Sheriff's Department

"If there has been a big scrap metal theft the day before, we want to know if it showed up at one of our local scrap dealers," DeMartini said.

The other provisions of the county ordinance are geared at deterring thieves from selling stolen metals for drug money at all hours, along with deterring unscrupulous scrap metal dealers.

DeMartini's next objective is to persuade all the cities in the county to adopt the ordinance.

"We need to have all the cities adopt the county ordinance," DeMartini said. "If we have one city in the county that doesn't adopt the ordinance, an unscrupulous dealer would just set up shop there."

He is trying to persuade Mer-ced and San Joaquin counties to adopt the ordinance.

DeMartini said he was somewhat relieved Berryhill's bill was defeated in the Senate committee. He said amendments were added along the way, including one that would void any existing or future local scrap metal laws.

Some loopholes were added to the bill that eliminated restrictions on scrap metal sellers who had more than five transactions with one dealer, DeMartini said.

"It started out as something good," he said. "It had been amended to the point where it was just worthless."

Stanislaus County Sheriff Adam Christianson also said he was relieved legislators defeated the bill, which had become a watered-down version of Berryhill's original law.

"It's not worth putting it on the books," Christianson said.

He said it is very frustrating that state legislators cannot produce a law with teeth that can stop a growing national crime trend fueled by methamphetamine addiction.

The county ordinance is not only tough, but also provides greater accountability, he said, but a statewide law with strong restrictions is the ultimate goal.

Christianson said a county ordinance might push metal thieves to nearby counties with lax regulations.

Junk dealers and recyclers pressed for a statewide law that would supersede local rules. Complying with multiple local ordinances is complicated and costly, according to the industry.

The bill, which cleared the Assembly earlier this year, needed five votes in the Senate committee but only got three.

Recyclers still will have to deal with multiple ordinances, Berryhill said.

"The Legislature failed to get tough enough, so now the recycling industry will have to deal with county ordinances that are way tougher than this bill, and I'll be cheering those counties on," he said in a statement.

The industry, for its part, plans to sponsor its own bill for a statewide law, said George Adams, chairman-elect of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, a national trade group.

"We just cannot have all these different rules," he said. "Nobody has any idea what is the correct rule. How do you train your people and how do you teach your customers?"

Rural counties have been hit especially hard by the growing trend. Thieves, including methamphetamine addicts, cannibalize farm equipment, selling the scrap metal to take advantage of rising prices for copper and aluminum, law enforcement officials say.