New Year, New Laws: Higher Threshold for “Grand Theft” Changes Penalties for Bike Theft

(This is a two-part series on some tweaks to state law that effect our streets.  Tomorrow we’ll look at some other changes that stiffen penalties for scofflaw drivers, whether their car is moving or not.)

When the clock struck midnight on Saturday morning, it didn’t just usher in a new year, but it also ushered in a new set of laws that will effect the way we move around our streets.  Some of the new laws concern new motorcycle licensing, while others concern higher tickets for traffic violators.  However, one change to the state’s theft laws could have unintended consequences for bicyclists.

Not grand theft: This bike, with black tires and minus the orange milk crate and U-lock, was stolen from in front of the Bike Oven in Northeast Los Angeles on Saturday.  Photo via Biking In L.A.
Not grand theft: This bike, with black tires and minus the orange milk crate and U-lock, was stolen from in front of the Bike Oven in Northeast Los Angeles on Saturday. Photo via Biking In L.A.

The impact this change could bring was first noticed by Biking in L.A. blogger Ted Rogers.  Under the new law, the value of a stolen item must exceed $950 for the act to be considered “grand theft” under state law.  The previous threshold was $400.  Basically, this means that the penalty for stealing many bikes just got a lot lower.  The odds of a thief seeing any jail time for “petty theft” is almost none, and the fines are a lot lower.

With the number of incidents of bike theft on the rise, this change could have the unintended consequence of further increasing that number in 2011.  A second side effect could be that cyclists who have their bikes stolen could have a harder time getting the police to file a report or help with recovery if the crime falls in to the “petty theft” category.  It’s also going to be a lot harder to convince the police and attorneys that a “Frankenbike” that was put together from pieces of other bikes is worth nearly $1,000 if the thief is eventually caught.

But to see just how many bikes would be effected by this change, I called Josef Bray-Ali of the Flying Pigeon Bike Shop to see how many of his customers’ bikes would be considered a “grand theft” were they to be stolen.

Bray-Ali noted that most bicycles are bought from large retail stores, such as Wal Mart, and that these “bike shaped things” sell for far less than $400.  In the eyes of the law, their theft would be “petty” regardless of whether the threshold was $400 or $950.  Higher end specialty shops will sell most of their bikes at a higher cost than $900, such as the bucket bike (aka, the Streetsblog baby mover), I purchased from Flying Pigeon in 2009.  So most of his customers’ bikes would also be unaffected by the change.

That’s not to say that a lot of bikes status aren’t effected by this change.  The bikes that have fallen out of the “grand theft” category are your brand name road bikes, cruisers and off road and mountain bicycles.  For example, my Trek bike was probably worth more than $400 when it was new.  There’s no way it ever approached a $950 price tag.

So is the change bad for cyclists?  Bray-Ali believes it will be.  “Anything that makes it less painful to steal a bike also makes it less likely that people will buy one.” he adds, “This law is bad for bikes, and bad for bike business.”

At Biking In L.A., Rogers agrees, “…the theft of many bikes will now be taken even less seriously than before.”

  • Adam

    Do you think the bike thiefs are aware of this change in the law? I’m just wondering if this will actually have an impact on bike theft.

    FWIW, my bike was stolen last week (in 2010). The replacement cost is between $400 and $950. Should I be grateful that it was stolen last year and not this year?

  • Bob Davis

    “bike shaped things”? Do I detect a note of two-wheeled snobbery? Is this a “slam” on “mass-market” products? Is a bicycle not a bicycle unless it comes from a “bike boutique”? I am reminded of automotive snobs who look down their noses at automatic transmissions with a “real motorists drive European-built stick-shift cars” attitude.

  • Bob, I think Damien misquoted me. I believe I said “Bike Shaped Objects” or “BSO’s”.

    This is a slang I picked up talking to people in the bike business. It refers to the bicycles sold at Wal-Mart, Target, etc. It isn’t the mass marketing, but the quality of the bicycles and parts that make them BSO’s.

    You spend a couple of years fixing plastic brake levers & shifters, and brake calipers and derailleurs that were designed to be sold and not ridden, and a little bit of anger and bitterness creeps into your vocabulary.

    “Snobbery”, not quite. Hard-bitten experience is more like it.

    I know a few bike shops that tell people riding these bikes, “Sorry, take it back to Target.” The amount of work required to make these bikes function after the first few months of ownership have worked them over isn’t worth it. Further, all that labor rarely produces a functioning bike, as these BSO’s rarely function when brand new!

  • Some stats on bicycle sales in 2009 can be found on the NBDA’s web-site at:
    http://nbda.com/articles/industry-overview-2009-pg34.htm

    Bicycle sales are accomplished in this country through five primary and distinct channels of distribution — the specialty bicycle retailer, the mass merchant, full-line sporting goods stores, outdoor specialty stores, and “other,” which is comprised of a mixture of retailers (including Internet sales delivered by mail).

    Department, discount and toy stores sell mostly price-oriented products. Approximately 73% of bicycle units were sold through the mass merchant channel in 2009, but this represented 32% of the dollars due to the average selling price of $78. This channel’s market share trend line was down from 2008.

    The approximately 4,200 specialty bicycle retailers feature higher quality merchandise, and also rely on adding value through added custom services such as bike fitting, expert assembly and repair. This channel commanded approximately 18% of the bicycle market in terms of unit sales in 2009, but 50% of the dollars, a dominant dollar share. Dealer price points generally start at around $200, with the average at approximately $500, though prices can range into the thousands. While the number of specialty bicycle stores has declined in recent years due to consolidation, they are responsible for approximately the same amount of business through these fewer (but larger) stores. This is the only distribution channel that maintained or increased average retail bicycle selling price in recent years, although all categories experienced price increases in 2008 due to the weak dollar. This channel’s overall share was slightly up in 2009 compared to 2008.
    Chain sporting goods stores sold approximately 4% of the bicycles in 2009, and 5% of the dollars, at an average price of $235. These are merchants that fall somewhere between mass merchant and bicycle dealers on the spectrum, and include stores such as The Sports Authority, Champs Sports, JumboSports, Sportmart and Big 5. This channel’s overall market share was down in 2009 compared to 2008.

    Outdoor specialty retailers sold approximately 2% of the bicycles in 2009, representing 5.8% of dollars and an average retail selling price of $510. This channel is being broken out separately this year for the first time so there is no trend line.

    The “other” category sold 3% of the units, representing 5.9% of the dollars, with an average price of $350.

    Specialty bike dealers commanded the majority of parts and accessories sales, and virtually 100% of the service market. They dominate the market in bicycles selling for $250 and up.

  • There’s a reason I didn’t use your name with that line, I wasn’t 100% sure of the slang and didn’t want to actually misquote you. That last sentence of your second post is really telling.

  • Bob Davis

    Thanks for the clarification. Those of us who do repairs and construction projects around the house know that there’s a gap between cheap tools and good tools. If we know we’re going to be using a tool many times, we go for the professional grade. I didn’t know there was such a big gap in bicycles–looks like if one spends $500 on a good bike, it will outlast a number of $99.95 cycles. I can also see that “schlock-cycles” probably disappoint many of their purchasers and discourage them from further adventures on two wheels. I think the only recent automotive example, let’s call it a “car-shaped-object”, would be a Yugo.

  • I imagine that BSOs continue to be prevalent in the marketplace because the kind of people that will buy a $100 bike at WalMart are usually the kind of people that will ride it around the block once or twice and then throw it in the garage, where it will not see the light of day until the big yard sale. The build quality of these bikes fulfills (or exceeds!) their intended use.

    By comparison, even the cheapest budget-model cars are expected to function as daily-use transportation.

  • TN

    I’m disappointed that this article on bicycle theft has devolved into a discussion bashing cheaper bicycles.

    One of the many reasons that people buy cheap bicycles is that they see clearly that in many areas, both cheap and expensive bicycles are highly prone to be stolen or vandalized. It sure is true is true here in the East Bay (Berkeley/Oakland CA)

    There’s a saying: “you shouldn’t ride anything you can’t afford to lose.”

    Many people can’t afford to lose a $100 bicycle let alone a $1000 one.

    I ride the oldest, cheapest bicycle possible because I can afford to lose it. That means I ride it more for errands in which I need to park it in unsecured spots.

  • TN,

    I think you’re confusing “affordable” bikes with “cheap” bikes.

    You: I ride the oldest, cheapest bicycle possible because I can afford to lose it. That means I ride it more for errands in which I need to park it in unsecured spots.

    Me: Me too! Buy my old, cheap, errands bike is still well built and safe to ride for long distances on city streets. A new $80 Wal Mart bike is not.

  • TN, the oldest and cheapest bicycle you own is (1) a relative measure of both age and price and (2) of unknown practical quality.

    As a rule, mass marketed bicycles a la the Wal-Mart triple suspension “Moutain Bike” are complete pieces of trash that don’t work beyond the first few days or weeks.

    I have ridden, built, restored, repaired, and respect, the low-cost beater bike (as should we all). These fugly bikes are what keeps your everyday rider rolling with a smile on their face and a big chunk of change securely in their pocket. I founded the Bike Oven, and Damien … well have you seen his bikes? It isn’t about the price – it is about the quality of the bike.

    Sadly, with this new law, BSO’s are even more vulnerable to theft and won’t garner any more than shrugged shoulders by the cops. That is bad news for 70% of the bike market and bad news for citizen cyclists/amigo ridazz.

  • Josef Bray-Ali, as a rule those bikes are trash that don’t work?

    That’s BS, complete snobbery at its worse.

    My $98 target bike from 2006 still works fine. And I dont have to worry about parking it in the street because not only is it cheap to replace, but bike snob thieves won’t touch it. Why would I ever buy a $1,000 bike if I can’t actually ride it anywhere as I’d be terrified that it would be stolen and I wouldn’t have the cash to replace it?

    Again, over 4 years of good use, and my Target bike has never had a part replaced, just oiled up the chains a bit.

    Of course, on the other side, as a rule, mass marketed cars a la the Toyota or Ford are complete pieces of trash that don’t work beyond the first few days or weeks. That’s why you should only buy BMWs. Right?

  • Alright, if you say so. I didn’t invent the term Bike Shaped Object, but i live with them every day in my shop. You bought quite a nice triple suspension Diamondback/Roadmaster/Huffy/Pacific/Ironhorse and rode it to work everyday, braking with your plastic brake levers, and twist shifting to high heaven, and everything is fine “just oiled up the chain a bit”. Wow, congrats. Maybe you can share the model name and manufacturer so we can all go out and snap those $79 diamonds in the rough up, because I see them piled to the ceiling at every bike collective I’ve ever visited getting ready to head to the metal recycler. With parts so cheap, when we’ve put bins of them on the sidewalk with a big “FREE” sign above them, people walk right past them.

    But I guess I am a horrible horrible snob for suggesting that, yes, there is a difference between a melted plastic brake lever and a machined steel-aluminium alloy one. Or perhaps there is a quality gain seen by using stainless steel spokes versus chrome plated spokes, or that a bike can brake with the rims have been machined for braking versus chrome plated steel rims. Maybe there is a difference between tires made with 60tpi carcasses and a manufacturing process with tight chemical and atmospheric tolerance and the cheap crap installed on most department store bikes.

    Or maybe not. I guess it could all be a delusion based on my “BMW” life style.

    Or maybe you are totally wrong about how great most department store bikes are.

  • calwatch

    It is most definitely snobbery. My mom was a bike COMMUTER for 15+ years on Huffys, Magnas, and Schwinns. Each one

  • calwatch

    It is most definitely snobbery. My mom was a bike COMMUTER for 15+ years on Huffys, Magnas, and Schwinns. Each one of them lasted well enough until they were stolen. If the bike was bad, which usually happened after three or four years, they were given away on Freecycle. Honestly, an investment of $500 or more, not to mention the inconvenience of LBS hours (no evenings or Sundays) and availability of sales and coupons make it much easier for low income immigrants and car wobblers to use bikes purchased at mass market retailers. The snobbery of the LBS folks doesn’t reduce the cost or make it more convenient to someone working near minimum wage. They don’t care about the allegedly better service or selection. And they do resent it when the LBS folks want to upsell them or make snide comments instead of just giving an estimate to fix it and letting the customer decide whether they should buy a new bike or fix the so called bike shaped object.

  • Bob Davis

    OK, for the outsider, does LBS mean “Little Bike Shop”, “Local Bike Shop” or something else entirely? Here’s another question: do bicycles have to meet any safety standards? Cars have to have air bags, seat belts, front disc brakes, etc. When they’re sold, they have to pass smog tests. While an air pollution test doesn’t apply to a bike (could apply to the rider if he or she doesn’t bathe often enough), do they have to be strong enough not to fall apart in the middle of an intersection?

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