By TIM HEARDEN
SACRAMENTO -- A slightly watered-down bill to crack down on cattle rustling is in the state Senate after breezing through the Assembly on a series of unanimous votes.
The bill by rancher and Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, seeks to increase penalties for livestock theft, which he and California Cattlemen's Association officials have said is on the rise.
Bigelow's Assembly Bill 924 would base penalties on the value of the livestock stolen and use money from fines to augment the state's Bureau of Livestock Identification, which investigates thefts. However, gone is a provision to allow prosecutors to seek jail time for repeat offenders, as concerns about prison overcrowding threatened to stall the bill.
The bill "does do something very beneficial" even without the jail time provisions, said Justin Oldfield, the CCA's vice president of government relations.
"The Bureau of Livestock Identification is fee-based," he said. "This would be an additional resource they can use. Even if it's only $50,000 a year, that's still money in their pockets for them to go out and investigate cases of theft. Ultimately the bureau works with law enforcement on this stuff."
Bigelow's legislation passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee by a 7-0 vote April 30 and cleared the Assembly floor, 77-0, on May 30. It now faces a hearing in the Senate Public Safety Committee, likely after lawmakers return from their summer recess.
While some outside the cattle industry may think of cattle rustling as just a fixture of old Western movies and TV shows, it's actually a high-tech activity in which thieves steal numbers of cattle and sell them in a black market or alter their brands, falsify inspection documents and sneak them out of state, CCA president Tim Koopmann has explained.
In 2012, the Bureau of Livestock Identification reported that 1,110 head of cattle were stolen -- a value of nearly $1 million, said Koopmann, a Sunol, Calif., rancher.
Oldfield said he's confident the bill will pass, although he said more changes may be made as lawmakers consider innovative ways to discourage animal theft.
Among other bills supported by CCA:
* The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee put a hold on a bill by Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres, to make it legal for 53-foot livestock semitrailers most commonly used in the livestock industry to travel on California's interstates and major highways.
To prevent trucks from having to use too much roadway to complete turns, state law only allows 53-foot trailers if the distance from the kingpin to the rear axle is no more than 40 feet, a Senate bill analysis explains. However, livestock trailers can't be configured in this way, so the industry is confined to using 48-foot semitrailers, which are the maximum allowed in California.
Cannella's Senate Bill 478 would create an exception for livestock trailers, but the CCA agreed with committee members to hold it for next year's sessions so it can have more time to discuss it with representatives from the California Department of Transportation and the Highway Patrol, Oldfield said.
* The CCA has given up on Assembly Bill 343, which would regulate how undercover animal-abuse photos and video footage in California would be handled. The bill was put on hold in April after representatives from the cattle group failed to reach consensus with some lawmakers and the Humane Society of the United States, which opposed it.
In its final version, the bill by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, would have given people who "knowingly or willingly" take photographs or video of abuse 120 hours to provide copies to the local police or sheriff's department.
California Cattlemen's Association: http://www.calcattlemen.org/