Bills would require photo ID for scrap metal sellers

Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca has a special interest in supporting two state bills aiming to stop the widespread and rampant theft of valuable metals, including copper wiring and pipes.

Sometime around 4 a.m. July 26, thieves climbed the walls of four office buildings in Santa Fe Springs and stripped large air-conditioning units of their copper wires, insulation and fans. One of the buildings hit: the sheriff’s Commercial Crimes Bureau.

Detectives discovered the crime the next work day when the air conditioning didn’t work. They were still without air conditioning last week, and officials estimate it will cost the building’s private owner up to $60,000 to repair the units. The stolen parts probably will sell for hundreds of dollars at a junkyard.


“This form of theft not only creates a public safety issue, but it also has severe cost implications for the businesses that bear the burden,” Baca said in a letter to state legislators asking for help on the problem.

State Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) and Assemblyman Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto) have written identical bills pending in the state Legislature that would require those selling metals to recycling yards to provide their thumbprint and photo identification and wait three days before they are paid by check.

The bills -- which would apply to “nonferrous material,” including copper, stainless steel and aluminum -- would fine junk dealers who fail to collect and maintain records $1,000 for the first offense and $4,000 for the third and subsequent offenses. In addition, a junkyard with three or more offenses could be ordered by a court to stop doing business for a year.

Throughout the state -- the Inland Empire, suburban housing tracts, farms, the streets of urban Los Angeles -- thieves are stealing manhole covers, gardening tools, bicycles, nuts and bolts from hydrants, freeway signs, agricultural equipment, and traffic signal wiring because the price of metals has gone through the roof in recent years.

“We recognize the seriousness of the issue is evolving from an expensive nuisance to a public safety nightmare,” Calderon said. “Street lights are being disabled . . . People are being electrocuted by trying to get live wire. Guardrails are being removed from freeways.”

Copper that sold for 90 cents a pound a few years ago has recently garnered up to $4 a pound, said Jonathan Manhan, who owns the BCS Recycling Specialists business in Canoga Park. Steel has gone from $100 a ton in 1990 to as high as $700 a ton, he said.


Manhan said the rise in prices is partly caused by the increasing demands of construction booms in China and other developing nations. Commodities brokers also have driven up the prices.

The bills are supported by the California chapter of the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling. Scrap metal recycling is a $71-billion industry in the U.S. Industry officials said the material is often unrecognizable -- cut up or crushed.

Some dealers, including Unicorn Metal and Recycling in La Habra, expressed concerns about the requirement for photo ID and thumbprints.

“We have a lot of customer base that brings in little stuff they have collected,” said Suzette Ornelas, a manager for the firm. She said such customers are concerned about ID theft and don’t want to share personal information.

The requirement to pay sellers with checks after three days is “ridiculous” because the sellers want cash immediately, Ornelas said.

Despite industry attempts to police itself, the thefts are hitting all walks of life.

Four days after the Santa Fe Springs caper, more than 60 cancer patients could not get radiation therapy July 30 at a clinic in Vista, in San Diego County, because a thief ripped out copper plumbing that cools radiation machines.


A month earlier, thieves stole 300 feet of copper grounding wire from a Southern California Edison substation, forcing workers to shut down the plant and cut power to more than 19,000 customers for nearly four hours.

The bills are vigorously opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union as unwarranted invasions of privacy.

“We object to government having businesses collect fingerprints of their customers,” said Tiffany Mok, a legislative advocate for the ACLU. “We see no concrete data showing this fingerprint requirement deters crime.”

In response to the privacy concerns, legislators have amended the bills to require law enforcement officials to get a court warrant before they can look at or take possession of a fingerprint.

Despite the ACLU complaints, Berryhill said the legislation is needed to provide a “disruption of payment to those thieves” in order to give law enforcement time to stop stolen metals from being scrapped.

The legislation is co-sponsored by the California Farm Bureau, which said that in the San Joaquin Valley more than $6 million worth of metal was stolen in 2006, a 400% increase from the year before.


The problem is just as bad in the urban areas patrolled by Baca’s deputies. The theft of wiring at the sheriff’s Santa Fe Springs office has brought home to detectives that nothing is sacred to those looking to cash in on the metals rush.

“Everything that is not being watched is being taken,” said sheriff’s Det. Dave Chapman, who is working the case.