Oklahoma lawmakers aim to increase cattle rustling penalties

OKLAHOMA CITY (Reuters) - Oklahoma lawmakers sent a measure to the governor on Tuesday to increase penalties for cattle rustling, in an attempt to curtail a crime associated with the Wild West that has seen a resurgence from ranch hands stealing livestock to feed their drug habits.

The bill approved by the Oklahoma Senate on Tuesday and already approved in the House increases fines for cattle theft and the number of felony counts that can be brought.

State law currently says the penalty for livestock theft is jail or a fine, but the legislation would allow for both penalties in a single case. It also allows prosecutors to assign a felony charge for each animal stolen.

“If a thief steals eight head of cattle, in the past he was charged with one felony count,” said Oklahoma Cattlemen’s Association Executive Vice President Michael Kelsey.

The crime has evolved from rustlers on horseback driving their plunder across the range, often portrayed in the early 1960s U.S. TV program “Rawhide,” to modern-day cowboys using pickup trucks and trailers to make off with cattle.

The recent rise in rustling is driven by the spread of heroin and methamphetamines to rural areas, an issue that has dogged states across the nation. In Oklahoma and neighboring Texas, lonesome cattle grazing on thousand-acre ranches that can fetch about $1,000 to $3,000 at market are proving to be easy targets for rustlers on the down and out.

Jail time for the theft of livestock remains at three to 10 years. Those convicted of livestock theft would be fined in an amount that is three times the value of animals and machinery stolen, capping out at $500,000.

The bill now heads to Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican.

“Now, district attorneys have the option to seek eight felony counts. If the district attorney is faced with a hardened criminal, he can really throw the book at him,” Kelsey said.

Among Oklahoma cattle thieves, about 75 percent are doing so to feed drug addictions, most often to methamphetamines, according to Jerry Flowers, chief agent for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture’s Investigative Services, a specialized units farm crimes.

Cattle theft data from the department showed that reported cattle thefts more than doubled in 2014 from the previous year, due in large part to rampant methamphetamine use and addiction in rural areas.