Stealing Free Newspapers Made Illegal

Sean Barry covers city government. Contact him at [email protected]

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Four years after Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates pleaded guilty to stealing 1,000 copies of The Daily Californian, the state will enact a new law outlawing the theft of free newspapers.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed AB 2612 last week, effectively making it a crime to steal more than 25 copies of a free newspaper and placing stricter penalties on repeat offenders. The bill will take effect on Jan. 1, 2007.

In 2002, Bates paid the maximum $250 fine after he and several members of his campaign staff were caught removing and disposing hundreds of issues of the Nov. 4 Daily Cal.

The issue contained an endorsement of then-mayor Shirley Dean, whom Bates defeated that year in a hard-fought campaign.

In addition to paying the penalty fee, Bates also paid a $500 restitution fee to the Daily Cal and gave a series of talks explaining his mistakes and what he learned from them. He also supported a Berkeley city ordinance that outlawed stealing free newspapers.

The new law, sponsored by Assembly Republican Leader George Plescia of San Diego and passed without objection in both houses, will bring clarity to the issue of stealing free newspapers, Bates said.

"I'm really pleased to see it happen," he said. "There is ambiguity, or at least there was in the past, about what happens to people who do this."

Bates' incident was one of the factors influencing the creation of the law, said Plescia's spokesperson Morgan Crinklaw.

The bill defines as theft any action done to "recycle, barter or to deprive others of the opportunity to read the newspaper, or to harm a business competitor." The new law imposes a $250 fine for first-time offenders and a $500 fine plus possible jail time for repeat offenders.

While the bill does not largely alter the punishment, the designation of stealing free newspapers as a distinct crime will give local authorities the tools they need to punish offenders, Crinklaw said.

"It was difficult before to prosecute these crimes and this will make it easier," he said.

The editor of a local free newspaper said he appreciated the law, saying he has seen more than two dozen newspapers stolen on several occasions.

"At every one of my jobs, there have been times when a particular story pissed someone off and sometimes they resort to theft to suppress the story," said Stephen Buel, editor of the East Bay Express.

Bates said he hopes this measure will prevent incidents similar to his.

"It was the worst thing I ever did in my life," he said. "Hopefully this will prevent the same thing from happening in the future."


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