Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, is advancing anti-metal theft legislation he hopes will close loopholes in a bill he sponsored in 2008 as an assemblyman to target the crime.

Senate Bill 757, authored by the senator representing Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, passed the Senate Business, Professions, and Economic Development Committee this week on a 10-0 vote. Its final language is still a work in progress but it is intended to tighten up the provisions of Berryhill's 2008 Assembly Bill 844, said Berryhill spokeswoman Eileen Ricker.

That bill instituted a three-day wait period in most cases for scrap metal sellers to receive cash after turning metal in at a junk dealer and for records including thumbprints, photos of the seller and the scrap metal and a copy of their drivers' license to be maintained by the dealer.

San Francisco Police Code Enforcement Officer Sue Lavin said the bill's provisions have proved a useful tool in tracking metal theft and apprehending culprits.

"The three-day wait period is the biggest thing. That gives us three days we can go in and investigate … and find the victims," Lavin said.

Lavin said she has done more than 100 sting operations at the city's recycling dealers and worked specifically with Pacific Gas and Electric on the issue of copper theft and San Francisco Department of Public Works regarding theft of manhole covers and back-flow preventers.

However, thieves are finding ways around the law, noted Brent Finkel, Berryhill's deputy chief of staff.

An exemption from the prohibition against immediate payment was provided in AB 844 for those who conduct transactions on five separate days each month with a scrap dealer.

"This provision was designed to protect those who rely on recycling as a primary source of income and who often do not have checking accounts and would have to pay a fee to cash (a) check, but has become a cottage-industry for thieves," Finkel wrote.

Sizable metal thefts have occurred in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties in recent years, particularly involving PG&E. A December 2010 break-in at the Sonora PG&E yard resulted in a loss of an estimated $50,000 in copper wire and tools. In 2008, thieves took a truck, copper wire and tools from PG&E in Angels Camp, valued at $60,000.

On the whole, PG&E experienced more than 2,500 metal thefts between 2005 and 2012, according to spokeswoman Jana Morris. In 2012 alone, 124 copper thefts plagued the utility, with losses of $366,000.

There were small contributions to those totals in 2011 from PG&E property in Sonora and, Morris said, while none occurred in 2012. She said three incidents totaling $5,400 in damages occurred there in 2011, but two thefts adding up to $3,500 in Angels Camp this year have involved tools and property but not metal.

As copper and metal prices rise, so do the thefts, she said.

Thieves end up endangering themselves, sometimes leading to serious injuries and deaths in the act, Morris said, and also others when wire thefts cut the power to emergency services.

"You have to ask yourself is a few dollars each piece of copper is worth really worth risking your life," she said, adding thefts have resulted "in power taken out to 911, hospitals … services that we in the general public ultimately rely on."

PG&E spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo said the company is "watching" SB 757 "but has not taken an official position on it" at this time.

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