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Editorial: Punishment for copper theft must fit the crime

In New Mexico, you can be charged with criminal damage to property for “intentionally damaging any real or personal property of another without the consent of the owner of the property.” That’s a petty misdemeanor, “except that when the damage to the property amounts to more than $1,000.” Then it’s a fourth-degree felony.

And if you “intentionally and maliciously defaced someone else’s property with graffiti or other inscribed material without consent of the owner” you can be charged based on how much damage you caused. More than $1k in damage and it’s a fourth-degree felony, with a basic sentence of 18 months in prison, along with 160 hours of community service and restitution to the property owner.

But rip out somebody else’s copper wire, and you will be charged with larceny tied to the value of the wire, usually a few hundred bucks.

It’s past time the New Mexico Legislature made the punishment for copper wire theft fit the crime.

More than 300 Albuquerque-area businesses and homes were vandalized by copper thieves in 2013, according to the Public Service Company of New Mexico.

Just to the north is St. John’s United Methodist Church in Santa Fe, which has yet to recover from the theft of 200 feet of wire worth between $200 and $500 that has prompted more than $80,000 in repair bills.

In addition, Eddy County’s oil and gas industry has been hard hit, with 220 larcenies between January and August. The most common item taken? Copper wire.

And last year copper thieves knocked out 911 service and railroad crossing lights.

Last session the New Mexico House unanimously approved making copper theft a third-degree felony if it causes a power failure that affects the public and a second-degree felony if repair costs top $20,000. The bill was tabled in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Majority leader Michael Sanchez, D-Belen, says having graduated steps of severity would be unique and too severe.

But cutting off power so that church boilers freeze and crack, grocery store freezers shut off and food spoils, railroad crossings stay open while trains run through and people in life-threatening emergencies can’t get through to 911 are severe consequences of a premeditated criminal act.

And it makes sense to treat the damage that act causes at least as seriously as a tagged building.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.