Politics and Government

Bill to slow catalytic converter theft races forward at MN Capitol

A man saws through the exhaust pipe under a Saturn SUV.
Mark Olek saws through the exhaust pipe under a Saturn SUV at his Economy Muffler shop on University Avenue in Jan. 2020. He says saws like his can cut loose a catalytic converter in less than a minute, and battery-powered versions could do it dozens of times between charges.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Updated 2:05 p.m.

Minnesota lawmakers are taking another run at clamping down on catalytic converter transactions to deter theft of the valuable car exhaust devices. 

The proposal includes a new set of criminal penalties around catalytic converter theft as well as better tracking when the devices change hands.

“It's long overdue,” Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said Tuesday before his bill was approved by the Commerce Committee and sent to another Senate panel.

Insurance industry statistics put Minnesota among the states with the most catalytic converter thefts. That’s despite efforts to break up theft rings and encourage scrap dealers to be more discerning.

Replacing them is expensive for vehicle owners, especially those whose auto insurance doesn’t cover it.

A man holds up a metal object
Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, (left) holds a catalytic converter as he presents his bill to try to prevent converter thefts in the Senate Commerce Committee on Tuesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

St. Paul resident Carrie Peltier told lawmakers of the theft from her father-in-law’s car as he made a Thanksgiving visit. He wound up flying home while the car underwent repair.

“All told this cost him more than $4,000. And we had to drive his then repaired car back to Indiana for him. Then he had to buy a shield that costs $350 to put it on his car so he could come visit us again,” Peltier said. “This is a problem in particular to our neighborhood, where people are hit every single day.”

The bill would further restrict transactions of the devices, which are stolen for precious metals inside them. Dealers would have to keep additional records and could purchase converters only with vehicle ID markings. There would be a waiting period for reselling them.

“This marking requirement will make it a lot easier for law enforcement to deal with those people that they're stopping at two, three o'clock in the morning, rolling around with a half a dozen catalytic converters that they don't have any explanation for how they ended up in the back of their car,” said Joe Boche, a special agent in the Commerce Department’s fraud bureau.

Federal authorities made arrests in Minnesota last year in connection to a national catalytic converter theft ring.

Boche said it’s difficult to say with certainty why Minnesota has had an “incredibly high”  number of thefts, but he said the organized buying and selling network for illicit devices might be at work.

Person talks at podium next to man
Joe Boche, a special agent with the Minnesota Department of Commerce Fraud Bureau, discusses a bill to crack down on catalytic converter theft. He appears with Senate Commerce Committee Chair Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Since 2021, scrap metal dealers have been required to collect more information about catalytic converters they acquire and who was involved in transactions. There have also been pilot projects to mark converters for vehicle owners with targeted models or in high-theft areas. 

But the prior attempts to make stolen converters harder to resell haven’t kept thieves at bay. 

The Minnesota County Attorney’s Association is among the groups supporting a crackdown. Executive Director Robert Small said it is necessary to “make it more difficult for thieves to sell stolen catalytic converters.”

Kurt Hallstrom, a senior commander for the St. Paul Police Department, said officers haven’t been able to act on their suspicion of theft because just having the devices hasn’t been illegal.

“If they don’t have markings on them and they’re not contraband – which I really like and support in this bill is it makes possession of a catalytic converter contraband such as a handgun or drugs – the officers haven’t really had anything reasonable to take them for,” Hallstrom said.

Marty’s bill would increase the penalties for those caught taking them and dealers involved in moving stolen items.

“If I find a thief with your catalytic converter and the numbers on it, we call you, ‘Did you give him your VIN number? No, they stole it?’ Well, we got them for theft there,” Marty said. “If they don't mark it on there, then we got the crime of possessing, because it's illegal to possess it.”

Under the bill that won approval Tuesday from the Senate Commerce Committee, illegal possession of a single converter would carry a misdemeanor charge, two would be a gross misdemeanor and more than that a felony, with graduated penalties for the most-severe cases.

Republicans said Minnesota must act in concert with neighboring states. And they said the crackdown will only work if cases are brought.

“I don't think this bill alone is going to fix the catalytic converter problem in Minnesota. We need prosecutors who are willing to prosecute criminals who are committing property crimes against Minnesotans,” said Sen. Jordan Rasmusson, R-Fergus Falls.

Jeremy Estenson, a lobbyist for the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries, said a significant number of stolen converters are shipped out of state, which would help criminals evade the intent of the legislation. He said a possible law needs to balance crime prevention and not overburdening legitimate scrap business operations.

“Industry is willing to do our part,” he said. “We are willing to do more record-keeping.”

Marty said he hopes his bill will move independent of other budget measures, despite the $300,000 cost for tracking and periodic audits. A House companion bill has already been through a committee but has other stops to make.

“I don't want to wait to the end of session and so on because we'd like it to move as quickly as we can,” Marty said.