Stealing a bicycle in Sacramento can now get someone prosecuted for felony grand theft

Liberal bike community and Midtown bait bikes steer tough on crime.

You’re gonna need a bigger lock.

You’re gonna need a bigger lock.

Illustration by Brian Breneman

Christine Morse is what some might term a bleeding heart. The criminal-defense attorney runs a rehabilitation program based on the premise that jails and prisons are overpopulated with people who can change. But Morse is also a mother, so when her son’s friend phoned her, crying after his bicycle was stolen in Old Sacramento one day, she wanted justice.

“The problem of stolen bikes is enormous here,” she said. “It’s aggravating. If that bike thief had gone down with a felony, we would not have been upset.”

And there’s the rub. Sacramento’s bicycle culture is so sick of thievery that this otherwise liberal, environmentally conscious (and drug-tolerant) community is ready to chuck the book at anyone who’s apprehended for snipping a cable lock and pedaling away.

They might get their wish.

As of about a month ago, one of the four bait bicycles roaming the grid is worth more than its decoy cousins by about a hundred bucks. That may not seem like much, but when it comes to the bait program, which has hooked nine thieves since May 1, it could be the difference between a pay-a-fine misdemeanor and a do-some-time felony.

For stealing a bike.

Here’s how that works: In 2010, the California Legislature increased the price-point threshold for grand theft— a “wobbler” crime that can be charged as a felony or misdemeanor depending on circumstances and a prosecutor’s whims—from $400 to $950. Thanks to the pricey global-positioning software that bait bicycles come equipped with, three of the bikes are worth $900. Now, there’s a fourth bait bicycle worth $1,000.

“That’s the big one out there,” said Lt. Marc Coopwood, who coordinates the department’s bait-bike program. “If we can get one [of those] a week, that’s good for us.”

Thus far, two people have been arrested for nabbing the felony bike—49-year-old Robert Joseph Black on May 11, and 45-year-old Charles Timberger on May 9.

Only Timberger was actually prosecuted for a felony, most likely because of a burglary-prone criminal record that dates back to 1988 in Sacramento Superior Court.

Police arrested Timberger on the 2000 block of L Street shortly before sunrise that Friday, after receiving an activation ping from one of their bait bikes.

On May 20, he pleaded no contest to one felony count of receiving stolen property and was sentenced to 180 days in jail, as well as five years of formal probation, according to online court data. The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department’s inmate-tracking system projects his release date as August 7.

As for Black, who also boasts a lengthy criminal record, he’s currently serving a 90-day jail stint after pleading no contest to one count of misdemeanor theft on May 14. He will be on informal probation for three years.

The Sacramento County district attorney’s office decides what charges to file. “Each case is evaluated on their unique facts,” said spokeswoman Shelly Orio, who didn’t provide additional details before print deadline.

For Lt. Coopwood, the value of the bait-bike program is that crooks talk, especially the ones that authorities believe are responsible for most central-city bike grabs. If Sacramento establishes a reputation for being inhospitable to bike thieves, they might take their burglary tools elsewhere. At least that’s the goal, one that the police department is leveraging between $5,000 and $6,000 worth of equipment to realize.

Asked if the grid is experiencing those desired dividends, Coopwood says yes. “We finally are.”

While bait-bike thefts have been increasing since the program’s inception eight months ago, actual bike thefts are down more than 23 percent in the downtown area this year, according to year-to-date figures provided by police spokesman Officer Doug Morse (Christine Morse’s brother). Between January 1 and May 31, police recorded 103 bike thefts in the three patrol sectors that make up downtown. During the same period last year, police tabulated 134 thefts.

This, even as Coopwood believes more victims are coming forward in what has long been an underreported crime.

These numbers don’t include burglaries or strong-arm robberies in which bicycles were taken during a break-in or by force.

Morse said it’s too soon to draw any hard conclusions from 2014’s decline, but believed there were reasons to be optimistic. “We’re hopefully on the right track,” he said.

As for whether it’s good public policy to nail someone for a felony for heisting a bicycle, that’s another question.

Matt Read isn’t so sure. The recent law-school graduate’s busted-up Fuji vanished from his backyard two years ago, one day before he planned to junk it. Read dutifully filed an online police report and registered his next bike through the city’s relatively new online registry program, but he stops short of asking for hard time.

“From my perspective, that’s way too much,” he said of charging thieves with a felony. “That’s like the opposite of Cash Cab, where your life is ruined.”

And it’s not just extra jail time that felony convictions bring, but other “collateral consequences,” said Steve Lewis, spokesman for the Sacramento County public defender’s office.

Longer probation terms, travel restrictions and a greater exposure to lengthy incarceration are all on that menu, while Lewis noted employers’ reluctance “to hire convicted felons” as a particularly lasting obstacle. “Bottom line is felony convictions don’t go away,” he said. “They can impact a person negatively for the rest of his or her life.”

Thus far, it appears the DA’s office is applying its leverage judiciously. But should a felony conviction even be an option?

“This is tough,” agreed Christine Morse. The criminal-justice reformer said most of the people who steal bikes are dealing with an assortment of issues, from poverty to drug addiction, and that trapping them with a jackpot bust might not be the answer. “The bigger issue, I think, is that you want to stop the behavior, not just give a few people felonies,” she said.

As for Sacramento’s exasperated bike community, it’s hard to take a pulse on where it stands. This SN&R reporter recently asked visitors to Reddit’s Sacramento subthread what they think should happen to arrested bike thieves. At press time, there were 33 comments. Answers ranged from offering pity and suggesting treatment to calls for harsher penalties. One commenter suggested a Megan’s Law-style registry to shame bike thieves, while another described a tongue-in-cheek revenge fantasy about “lunging at them with a weapon.”

The user who posted the latter response called himself “a pretty liberal, progressive guy.”