By Robert Nott/ Santa Fe New Mexican
This is no bull — and no joke.
There's a crime still all too common to those who run farms and ranches around New Mexico: livestock rustling.
And not just cattle theft. Horses, donkeys, pigs, llamas and all sorts of poultry are also being hauled away by truck, trailer and any other means possible, agricultural experts say.
In the days of the old West, rustlers who were caught ended up hanging from a tree or scaffold, said Rep. Candy Spence Ezzell, R-Roswell.
Those times are over, but discouraging measures need to be enacted to deter the crime, Ezzell, a rancher, told members of the Agriculture, Acequias and Water Resources Committee Thursday.
"We still have livestock theft in the state of New Mexico," Ezzell said as she pitched a bill that would increase penalties for those who steal livestock.
She and other ranching and livestock advocates at the hearing said the ability to provide food or dairy products is at stake, not merely the ability to run a single ranch or farm.
Under current law, a rustler faces one criminal charge of third-degree larceny whether a suspect steals one head of cattle or 100. Ezzell's House Bill 153 and a companion bill in the Senate, SB 199, would make the theft of each animal an individual criminal charge of third-degree larceny.
"If a bad guy steals 20 cattle, it's one charge of larceny even though the owner lost the cost of 20 cows," she explained to the committee members, saying the current punishment does not fit the crime.
A third-degree larceny charge can lead to up to three years in prison, but thieves can cut plea deals and get away with less time or no time at all, said Shawn Davis, deputy director of the state Livestock Board, who testified in support of the bill.
In an interview following the hearing, Davis said in his 20-plus years of experience, he has seen only one livestock thief actually go to prison.
Harsher penalties would give judges more leeway to sentence criminals to jail rather than let them go on probation with no or little prison time, he said.
The bill's fiscal impact report says the existing crime of larceny of livestock has "resulted in very few prison admissions over the past two decades. The Sentencing Commission reports that between 2004 and 2013, three individuals were admitted to prison with this being their most serious charge, and none have been admitted since 2013. Indeed, fewer than 20 counts of this crime have been disposed in the last five years, and most have been dismissed."
In an interview following the hearing, Ezzell said many livestock thieves go uncaught. But she said she believes if rustlers see their compatriots in crime serving longer sentences, they'll think twice about pulling their truck and trailer onto someone's ranch to steal a bull.
That happened to her on her spread in the southeastern part of the state back in the late 1990s, Ezzell said.
The problem is not unique to New Mexico. A search of online ranching and farming websites indicates many states in the West are facing similar challenges.
Earlier this month Colorado news outlets reported the theft of 80 cattle from a ranch in Baca County, located in the far southeastern part of the state. The owner said the cattle were worth about $100,000.
What's lost is not just the cost of one cow, Davis said — but the potential calves the cow might give birth to down the line, adding future value to the owner.
Ezzell said rustlers can rebrand the cattle and sell them at auctions. Horses, she added, are often stolen to be slaughtered, run in illegal races or used to transport drugs across the border from Mexico.
Committee members agreed rustling is a threat to be addressed, though several said the bill's intent would be better served if the charges were based on the value of the loss of livestock — say, $750 per cow multiplied by 50 cows stolen.
Since the definition of livestock also includes chickens, turkeys, ducks and other fowl, Rep. Marian Matthews, D-Albuquerque, said it would be harsh to lock someone up on 20 felony charges for stealing 20 chicks.
Rep. Anthony Allison, D-Fruitland, raised another issue. He said the Navajo Nation remains a sanctuary for livestock thieves because it's difficult to catch or prosecute them within a sovereign nation. He said he likes the bill's intent and hopes it could be applied to tribal lands.
He also expressed concerns about filling state jails with rustlers while perpetrators who commit much more serious crimes remain free.
Allison ultimately joined four other members of the committee to vote 5-2 to pass HB 153 to the House Judiciary Committee.
Matthews and Rep. Susan Herrera, D-Embudo, voted against HB 153, both suggesting Ezzell modify the bill to take Matthews' idea into account.
Ezzell said after the hearing she plans to amend the bill because Matthews and Herrera have a "valid point" and she wants the judiciary committee to support it as well.
Ezzell told the committee members she fears if nothing is done to solve the problem, livestock thefts will not only continue at ranches but expand to "rodeos, racetracks, auction yards."
"It's a serious situation," she said.
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