Catalytic converter and auto theft spike send lawmakers scrambling

At least 11 states are expected to address the crime spike in 2023 after nearly two-thirds acted over the past two years.
This photo provided by the Phoenix Police Department shows stolen catalytic converters that were recoverd after detectives served a search warrant at a storage unit Phoenix on Thursday, May 27, 2022. The bust came amid a national surge in thefts of the pricy auto parts that play a critical in reducing vehicle emissions and has led lawmakers in 36 states and in Washington D.C. to consider new laws to address the problem. (Phoenix Police Department via AP)

State lawmakers are scrambling for ways to crack down on the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts and the spike in stolen cars.

Catalytic converter stealing, the more recent phenomenon, saw a 1,215% increase since 2019, according to tracking by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. The skyrocketing thefts coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic and a jump in the value of the rare metals found inside the smog-cutting devices.

It pushed nearly two-thirds of states to pass laws over the past two years aimed at stemming the rampant pilfering, including at least 10 states in 2021 and 22 states this year, according to NICB. In 2023, the bureau said it expects proposals in at least 11 states to beef up regulations on scrap yards, increase penalties, or address wrinkles in previously passed laws.

Rhode Island is among the states that passed a catalytic converter theft law this year, but the problem persists. State Rep. Joseph Solomon (D), who sponsored the new law and was a theft victim himself, plans to introduce follow-on legislation in January to stiffen penalties for scrap yards that do not comply with the state’s new documentation requirements.

“I’m going to come in with a much more heavy-handed approach for those violating the provisions,” Solomon said in an interview.

A proficient thief can remove a catalytic converter from the underside of a car in a matter of minutes. The devices are then fenced on the black market where they can fetch between $50 and $250, according to NICB.

California, Texas, Washington, North Carolina and Minnesota reported the most catalytic converter thefts in 2021, according to NICB’s analysis of claims data.

States have generally tried to tackle the problem by placing new requirements on the sale and purchase of catalytic converters. That is similar to the approach taken more than a decade ago to address a rash of metal theft.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) signed a law in October that requires vehicle dismantlers, scrap processors and others to maintain records on catalytic converters in their possession and report that information to the state every 60 days. California lawmakers passed three laws this year aimed at driving down the thefts, including new documentation requirements for scrap yards.

In Illinois, another state that passed a catalytic converter theft law this year, state Rep. Amy Elik (R) recently introduced legislation to make it a felony under the state’s Recyclable Metal Purchase Registration Law to fail to record the purchase of 100 or more catalytic converters.

The scrap metal industry said it supports efforts to strengthen metal theft laws — which exist in all 50 states — to address the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts.

“We want reasonable and rational laws and regulations, and we want to be part of the development [of them],” said Danielle Waterfield, chief policy officer at the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.

The push in the states comes as federal officials also seek to address the issue. A bill introduced in the U.S. Senate would codify catalytic converter theft as a crime and require them to be stamped with the car’s Vehicle Identification Number. The U.S. Department of Justice announced last month the takedown of a nationwide, multi-million-dollar catalytic converter theft ring that resulted in 21 arrests in five states.

Meanwhile, governors from Colorado to New Jersey are also calling for additional funding and laws to address auto thefts.

At a news conference last month, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) touted recent declines in auto thefts and credited steps such as once again allowing police to pursue stolen cars. But Murphy said more needs to be done and tied the effort to reducing violent crime.

“Too often stolen cars are used in shootings and other acts of violence,” Murphy said.

Murphy is urging passage of a package of legislative proposals, including establishing a persistent auto theft offender statute and making it a crime to possess certain tools associated with auto theft.

The proposals also include new criminal penalties for people who fail to comply with guidelines related to the sale and purchase of catalytic converters.

Senate President Nick Scutari (D) and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D) have joined Murphy in calling for additional measures to deter car thefts and to target theft rings.

In Colorado, where combating car theft was a campaign issue this year, Gov. Jared Polis (D) included $12.6 million in his proposed 2023-24 budget “to prevent and prosecute auto theft.” Among other things, the money would fund the hiring of 10 new auto theft prosecutors and the purchase of electronic license plate readers.

Separately, Polis has called upon the Colorado Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice to review the state’s car theft sentencing practices, which are based on the value of the stolen car.

“Enhancing the penalties associated with auto theft, regardless of the value of the vehicle stolen, has the potential to make us safer and improve,” Polis wrote in a September letter to the commission.

Calling car theft a “top priority of mine,” Polis vowed to work with the legislature to pass measures during the 2023 session whether the commission makes recommendations or not.

Colorado has the distinction of being the nation’s top hot spot for auto thefts on a per capita basis, according to NICB tracking. Last year, the state experienced 661 thefts per 100,000 people — a 32% increase over 2020.

Washington, D.C., California, New Mexico and Oregon rounded out the top five on NICB’s most recent theft rate report. As of November of this year, more than 745,000 cars had been stolen in the U.S., a 24% increase from 2019.

“If this trend continues, totals could exceed one million stolen vehicles nationally by the end of the year and surpass pre-pandemic highs by more than 100,000 stolen vehicles,” a November NICB press release said.

NICB said that, in addition to New Jersey and Colorado, it anticipates legislative activity regarding vehicle thefts next year in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington state, Texas, Oregon, Nevada, California, Hawaii, Alaska, Georgia, and Tennessee.