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State bill seeks to stop catalytic converter theft

State Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) shows a catalytic converter during a news conference March 18.
(Kristian Carreon)

Senate Bill 919 would identify the devices and regulate their sale.

A bill introduced by state Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) aims to stem thefts of catalytic converters, which have climbed dramatically in San Diego County.

Senate Bill 919, introduced last month, would require the automotive devices to be marked with vehicle identification numbers and would tighten procedures for their sale and increase fines for stealing them.

“The bottom line is that California is No. 1 in the nation for catalytic converter thefts,” Jones said at a news conference March 18 in San Diego. “Last year, over 18,000 catalytic converters were stolen from California. And we are 30 percent of the insurance claims filed nationally. We need to get a handle on this.”

Catalytic converters are emission-control devices that convert toxic gases and other pollutants in exhaust from an internal combustion engine into less-toxic pollutants. They are prized because they use the precious metals rhodium, palladium and platinum to filter car exhaust. As the prices of those metals have risen higher than the price of gold, the devices have become greater targets for theft.

Over the past year, more than 2,000 catalytic converters were stolen from cars in the San Diego area — a 423 percent increase over the previous year, according to county District Attorney Summer Stephan.

Brian Henry, a master service advisor at La Jolla Family Auto Service, said Toyota Prius gasoline-electric hybrid cars are particularly susceptible because “the converters are easily accessible if you know what you’re doing.”

Auto experts say some thieves can steal a converter in less than a minute.

This metal shield was installed over a new catalytic converter on a Toyota Prius after the original converter was stolen.
This metal shield was installed over a replacement catalytic converter on a Toyota Prius after the original converter was stolen.
(Ryan Ogden / Hanson’s Muffler Service)

A used catalytic converter can be worth about $250 to $500 in recycling, but the cost of replacing it can be many times that.

“The cost to the vehicle owner can be thousands of dollars in parts and repair costs, not to mention other expenses such as missed time for work or arranging for alternate transportation,” Jones said.

Most catalytic converters cost more than $950, so their theft can be prosecuted as a felony under state law, Stephan said. Though the crime is common, few cases are referred to her office for prosecution because it’s so hard to prove unless the thief is caught in the act, she said.

“We’re trying to bridge the gap by adding an ID number requirement,” she said.

Under the bill, dealers of new and used vehicles would be required to permanently mark the vehicle identification number, or VIN, on the catalytic converter of any vehicle before they sell it.

“This would create a way to identify the catalytic converter that is illegally removed from a car,” by matching it to the vehicle it was stolen from, Jones said.

Under the bill, metal recyclers would be allowed to buy only catalytic converters with clearly visible and unaltered VINs and would be required to keep detailed records of the sellers and make those records available to law enforcement.

“This would discourage the current loose practice of selling and buying catalytic converters and cut off the easy money thieves currently make by stealing these items,” Jones said.

The bill would increase fines for catalytic converter theft to $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for the second and $4,000 for the third and any subsequent violation.

It also would add provisions to the vehicle code stating that law enforcement officers don’t need to witness the theft to make an arrest. They could instead establish probable cause if they find a suspect with a tampered-with or damaged catalytic converter or one that has markings not associated with the person’s vehicle, or if the person is in possession of multiple catalytic converters or tools commonly used to disable the devices.

Vehicle owners can get their catalytic converters engraved with their VINs, but only a few shops have the tools to do that now, Jones said.

Car owners also can buy shields to protect their vehicles and deter thieves, though those can be expensive to install.

Jones said his legislation is one of about a dozen bills intended to stem the thefts that are making their way through the state Legislature.

SB 919 is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee on Monday, April 4.

— The La Jolla Light and San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer Phil Diehl contributed to this report.


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