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New crime-fighting tool to combat ag equipment thefts

New tool to help battle ag crime

SALINAS, Calif. - Ag-related equipment thefts are a major problem, not just in Monterey County but across California and other parts of the world. But now, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office along with the District Attorney’s Office and Farm Bureau, are launching new technology to curb those crimes. 

Thefts of agriculture equipment are something law enforcement sees every day and it’s not cheap. 

"A stolen tractor can be anywhere between $20-$300,000,” said Ag Crimes Detective Ken Owen. “Some of the tractors are very high end pieces of equipment."

It’s hard to track the crimes. There’s no penal code for farm equipment, just stolen property values over $400, which is a felony. Based on that, the Monterey County Sheriff’s Office has 322 reports of thefts over $400. There are 153 thefts over $400 in areas where agriculture is dominant, mainly North and South Monterey County.

This can affect a grower’s production.

“It throws them into a tailspin because they've scheduled to use that material, to use those items now they don't have it,” said Ag Commissioner Henry Gonzales. “Now they have to deal with the theft, with the replacement of the equipment, delays and their schedules."

On Wednesday, the Monterey County Sheriff’s launched a new tool and deterrent called SmartWater CSI. They are kits, available to growers, which contain a liquid that can mark 60-80 pieces of equipment. The liquid has a unique forensic code, something like DNA. It’s only visible with a specific longwave light, only available to law enforcement. 

The kits also include signage that acts as a deterrent and warns would-be thieves. 

Monterey County is the third county in California to use this technology behind Tulare and Merced Counties. Tulare County ag investigators say it’s worth it. In the 15 months they’ve been using it, 450 kits have been given out and they’ve seen a double-digit drop in ag thefts. 

"Our unit routinely takes about $4 million of theft reports annually,” said Det. Randy Gunderman. “Of that we recover maybe 50% with an 11% reductions just based merely on SmartWater, that's a huge number."

Neighboring counties are also looking at the system, as a way to get ahead of the criminals.

"We also share a lot of the same clients and we also serve a lot of the same population with our rural and agricultural communities, so we're really interested to learn about what they're doing, why they're doing it and kind of see some test cases go through the court system and see if it's something that we want to implement in San Benito County," said Capt. Eric Taylor. 

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