Newspaper Theft Increases, New Law in the Works

By Judith Scherr
Thursday May 29, 2008 - 09:47:00 AM

An early riser at 5:30 on Wednesday morning thought he’d spotted a thief in the act of committing a crime which is the subject of legislation that has passed the state Assembly and is now headed for the Senate. He saw a man loading many copies of newspapers from distribution boxes on College Avenue near Ashby into a pickup truck, and he called the Berkeley Police Department with a full description of the man and the truck, complete with license number. 

Officer Andrew Frankel, spokesperson for the Berkeley Police Department, told the Planet on Wednesday afternoon that an officer was dispatched to the area, but there was no sign of a thief when they got there.  

He said that in order to pursue the possible theft further, the reporting party would have to be willing to sign a complaint. Witnesses who think they’re observing a theft and report it must be willing to provide their names and make a citizen’s arrest, Frankel said. He noted that poachers generally work in the wee hours of the morning and are observed by few people, and said the department does not track the number of citations given for theft of free newspapers.  

Free newspapers aren’t really free, however. Publishers know what newsprint costs. And professional poachers who rip off free papers and sell them to recycling companies know their value too. The price of newsprint is going up, the economy is tanking, and theft of papers from news boxes is on the rise. 

Though this particular witness was not willing to sign a complaint, he did email full information about what happened, including his own name and phone number, to a group of interested parties, newspaper publishers and honest recyclers who are working together to put an end to paper theft. They forwarded his information to the Planet. The witness asked in a followup email that his name not be published. 

He said in his report that he also called an Oakland buyer of recycled newsprint to report the likely arrival of the thief, and urged the woman who answered the phone to call the Oakland Police Department. He reported that she said the truck as described was at her location, but she wouldn’t call the police .  

So, he said, he called the police himself. The OPD dispatcher said “But the newspapers are free.” He told her that theft of free papers is a crime. By press time on Wednesday, no one had been arrested. 

Incidents like this one are why there’s a great deal of support among publishers of local free papers—the Examiner, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the East Bay Express, the Berkeley Daily Planet and more—for AB 1778, sponsored by Assemblymember Fiona Ma, which passed the Assembly 45 to 24 on May 22 and is now headed to the State Senate. 

Under AB 1778, recycling companies would be required to identify those who bring recyclables and newspapers worth $50 or more to sell. The bill also requires the recycling company to pay by check for recyclables worth $50 or more. 

“This should give us the ability to cut off the [poachers’] money supply,” Express Publisher Hal Brody told the Planet. 

A full pick-up load of newsprint will fetch $80 to $100, Brody said, noting that he would have preferred that the bill require identification and payment by check at the $25 level. He said he fears that the bill could be weakened in the senate by those who want the threshold set at $100.  

The bill doesn’t target the lone individuals seen scavenging for cans. One thousand aluminum cans is equal to about 34 pounds, for which recycling companies pay around $50.  

According to Brody, the bill targets professionals, some of whom have a fleet of trucks. These thieves vary their targets, going to various parts of town or different cities. 

“It’s a cat and mouse game,” Brody said. Originally, AB 1778 targeted only thieves who take large quantities of recyclables from bins provided by cities, according to Nick Hardeman, spokesperson for Ma. The thefts cause the cities to lose revenue, which the taxpayer must make up, he told the Planet on Tuesday.  

Newspaper theft was then added to the bill, at the request of Brody and other newspaper publishers, Hardeman said.