A bill pending in the state Legislature would divert fines from the theft of tractors and other agricultural equipment to fund law enforcement activities in Kern and other rural areas where such crimes have long been a problem for farmers.
Senate Bill 224, introduced this year by state Sen. Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, would create a new classification for grand theft of agricultural equipment. Any fines resulting from criminal convictions of such theft would be set aside for rural crime prevention programs in the Central Valley and the Central Coast.
Sponsored by the sheriff of Tulare County, where in 2018 ag equipment thefts were estimated at $2 million, SB 224 is supported by the Kern County Sheriff's Office and the California Farm Bureau Federation.
"Ag equipment theft is a significant problem for our rural communities. This equipment not only requires an incredible amount of capital to purchase and customize, but from an operational standpoint, they’re absolutes," federation policy advocate Taylor Roschen said by email Friday. "And when work is weather and market-dependent, delays from having to buy or source new equipment can be devastating, including crop loss."
After passing the Senate Public Safety Committee by a unanimous vote, the bill now goes before the Senate Appropriations Committee, where no vote had been scheduled as of Friday.
The two organizations that would receive money from fines falling under the proposed classification of "grand theft, agricultural equipment" are the Central Valley and the Central Coast rural crime prevention programs. Both are now funded by vehicle license fees. Kern receives almost 14 percent of the programs' total funding.
Grand theft is a misdemeanor or felony defined in California as stealing of property valued at more than $950. Fines for such crimes are capped at $10,000.
Law enforcement agencies have a hard time preventing theft of ag equipment partly because there is so much remote ground to cover in rural areas.
Also, farmers often leave their equipment unattended overnight in fields and orchards. Some use GPS or other technologies to track their property if it's stolen, but still thefts persist.
In one case last month, a Lamont man was arrested on suspicion of stealing a tractor from a Grimmway equipment yard.
The suspect, Jesus Ramirez, 33, allegedly drove the stolen tractor at a deputy sent to the scene. The deputy moved out of the way and the tractor hit the patrol car. A slow-speed chase ensued and Ramirez was finally arrested after the tractor became disabled.