California moved one step closer to requiring all smartphones sold in the state to come pre-equipped with antitheft technology in hopes of curbing street robberies that target the pricey devices.

The state Senate approved a bill Thursday that requires kill switches to be activated on smartphones, a mandate that the wireless industry said is unnecessary, although major cell phone manufacturers Apple and Microsoft removed their opposition this week.

The bill's author, San Francisco Democratic Sen. Mark Leno, said he's pleased the bill passed, particularly because it failed its first vote in the Senate last month after several Democrats voted against it. The bill needed 21 votes to pass and garnered 19 ayes on April 24 when it was first heard in the Senate.

On Thursday, the bill was sent to the Assembly after a 26-8 vote.

"This is about making our communities safe," Leno said. "A crime that didn't exist several years ago is rampant in our neighborhoods. Those caught and convicted refer to it as apple picking, because it's such low fruit and it's so easy to do, and we want to make sure that convenience is taken away."

Leno said SB962 would deter cell phone thefts by allowing owners to remotely render their device inoperable if it is lost or stolen, which limits the resale value of a phone.

Many law enforcement agencies and organizations backed the bill, including the California District Attorneys Association, California Police Chiefs Association and BART police.

San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón, one of the leaders pushing for the kill switch, welcomed the vote as a major step forward in a "very hard-fought battle."

3 million robberies

He said that within about three years of implementation, the shutoff feature should make a substantial dent into the problem of smartphone robberies, which hit 3 million people in the U.S. last year.

He said preliminary figures for last year show that smartphones and other mobile devices accounted for 67 percent of San Francisco's robberies.

"We're talking about an epidemic," he said, which had been fueled by an industry that has profited by victimization to the tune of $38 billion or more annually based on replacement of lost or stolen phones.

Oakland leaders called Leno's bill an innovative strategy to reduce robberies and burglaries. According to police data, 84 percent of armed robberies in Oakland so far this year have involved a cell phone.

Oakland Councilman Dan Kalb, who has pushed for the bill in Sacramento and was the victim of an armed robbery, said that nothing short of a mandatory kill switch would make a difference.

A legal mandate

"Voluntary efforts are all nice, fine and dandy, but they don't deter anything," Kalb said, referring to the wireless industry's plan for opt-in antitheft technology, versus the requirements in Leno's bill that would put the onus on the user to opt out.

Sean Whent, Oakland's interim police chief, said a kill switch would make cell phones much less attractive to thieves.

"One of the things robbers frequently ask is: 'Where is your cell phone? Give me your cell phone.' That seems to be the driving force," Whent said.

The wireless industry association, CTIA, said consumers should determine whether they want to have the antitheft technology on their phones.

CTIA announced last month that the wireless industry would offer optional, reversible kill switches starting next year as a way to deter thieves, a move some saw as a way to thwart Leno's legislation. CTIA said its national antitheft approach is better than inconsistent patchwork solutions by individual states.

Industry is opposed

"Given the breadth of action the industry has voluntarily taken, it was unnecessary for the California Senate to approve SB962, which would mandate a specific form of antitheft functionality," said Jamie Hastings, CTIA vice president of external and state affairs. "State-by-state technology mandates stifle innovation to the ultimate detriment to the consumer."

©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle