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Bicycle theft

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

8:50 AM PST on January 5, 2011

(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.

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."

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