Given the severity of what can happen, the state House of Representatives voted Wednesday to increase penalties for larceny of cable or hardware when it causes a utility or telecommunication outage.
The proposal, House Bill 57, cleared the House on a 60-0 vote. It moves next to the state Senate.
Rep. Debbie Rodella, D-Espanola, is sponsoring the bill. She said her hope was that it would deter thefts of copper from power lines or other equipment that could trigger an outage.
Rodella said someone who steals $100 worth of copper can create dangerous conditions if the crime knocks out phone service or shuts down a hospital.
Such a small theft now would be a petty misdemeanor, said Rep. Antonio Maestas, D-Albuquerque. But if the thief caused a utility outage, the crime would escalate to a third-degree felony under the bill.
The railroad industry asked for and received inclusion in the bill to cover theft of its signal systems. Theft of that equipment also would become a third-degree felony if it caused a service outage.
Rodella said this bill is a companion law to one approved last year that was intended to dry up the market for stolen metals.
That bill required secondhand metal dealers to obtain state licenses, maintain sales records for one year and make them available to police officers investigating thefts.
Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com