How stolen bike recovery works in California

With San Francisco’s launch of a voluntary bicycle registration program, I figure it’s time to explain how bicycle registration and stolen property recovery works in California.

California bicycle license

In California, bicycle registration stickers are provided to local agencies from the DMV. Although there is no statewide database of registered bikes, each registration sticker has a unique serial number. The DMV tracks which agencies get which serial numbers. Local agencies with bike registration programs maintain their own local databases.

When somebody reports a bike theft, the important information is the manufacturer / make, the serial number and, if available, the California registration number. This information is entered into the statewide California Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (CLETS).

If any law enforcement officer anywhere in the state comes upon the stolen bike and runs the bike serial number or registration number against the CLETS database, the bike can be recovered. Some officers will run the registration number during traffic stops.

David Takemoto-Weerts is the Bicycle Program Coordinator for Transportation & Parking Services at the University of California, Davis. He reports that every bike impounded for any reason (usually abandonment) is checked against CLETS. Takemoto-Weerts says they commonly recover stolen bikes and return them to their owners.

Because they can identify owners of registered bikes, UC Davis has returned many stolen bikes which were never reported stolen.

I encourage you to take advantage of bike registration if your locality offers it.


  1. We really need everyone to register their bike. It is the only way to slow down rampant theft. I have wasted so much time guarding my bike from theft. 50 years worth now, with one bike lost in N.Y.C. in a situation where I was not going to take on 5 guys over a bike.

  2. Jack, license databases are maintained locally. Officer first checks with DMV to see which agency received that sticker, then calls the agency to lookup registrants info.

    Stolen property database is statewide

  3. In Sunnyvale you would get your license sticker at your local fire station. The transaction was kept in a book, not a database, With 7 stations finding a number listed wasn’t really practical
    . sigh.

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