Law targets metal theft in Merced

MERCED -- A proposed county ordinance could bring relief to victims of metal theft, a growing problem that's plagued Merced's agricultural com- munity for years.

County attorneys are drafting the ordinance, which would make it easier for law enforcement officials to track stolen metals sold to scrap dealers. It would require metal buyers to get identification from customers selling commonly stolen metals, said James Fincher, the county's lead attorney.

It also would ban cash transactions for sales over a certain dollar amount. Sellers would have to take checks instead. And it would require scrap dealers to hold the materials they buy for several days.

The Merced County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote next month on whether to adopt the ordinance.

Farmers and law enforcement officials back the proposal. Without it, they say, there's little hope for curbing what has become a rampant, costly problem.

Merced County Sheriff Mark Pazin said metal thefts have become an almost daily occurrence in Merced in recent years, and farms and ranches are common targets. Copper wiring that supplies power to irrigation pumps is especially popular among thieves, as are metal pipes and siding.

300 cases involving copper wire

Authorities estimate there were as many as 300 copper wire thefts in the county last year, and they say without rules such as those included in the ordi- nance, tracking stolen materials is nearly impossible. The ordinance would require scrap dealers to obtain copies of sellers' driver's licenses, their vehicle license plate numbers and an explanation of where the material they're selling came from. The rules would apply to commonly stolen items, includ- ing construction-grade alumi- num, copper wire and railroad ties. Materials such as alumi- num cans would be exempt.

To curb thefts, sheriff's officials have tried such things as placing farms under nightly surveillance and conducting sting operations at local buyers, but it hasn't made much of a difference.

In addition to farms, the problem has spread to schools, hospitals, utility companies and construction sites. Metal thieves even strike scrap dealers, and that's why Billie Hicks, owner of H&H Salvage and Recycling Co., says she supports added regulations, at least to a point.

"I don't like thieves, and I feel sorry for these farmers," Hicks said, "because I'm a victim too." Hicks, who has run the Highway 59 business for a quarter- century, said she's been robbed several times in recent months, including an incident last weekend that she estimates cost her $10,000 in stolen metal.

But Hicks, who asks all her customers for identification, said she hopes the ordinance doesn't add too much paperwork to her load. "As long as it's not too much of a hassle, I'll support (the ordinance)."

No matter how lax or stringent it is, however, some say the ordinance won't be enough, because thieves will be able to sell their wares in nearby counties. While some neigh- boring counties, including Stanislaus and San Joaquin, have similar ordinances, others don't.

Efforts to pass a statewide law haven't succeeded. In May, Assembly members Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, and Cathleen Galgiani, D-Stockton, introduced a bill that would have required identification and banned cash transactions for scrap metal sellers. While the bill won unanimous support in the Assembly, it died in a Senate committee in July.