Minnesota catalytic converter theft bill rumbles toward approval

A man holds a replacement catalytic converter.
Mark Olek holds a replacement catalytic converter at his Economy Muffler shop on University Avenue in St. Paul on Jan. 9. He says he's regularly replacing the stolen devices for several customers a day.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Legislative efforts to combat catalytic converter thefts are nearing conclusion after the Minnesota Senate approved a bill Thursday targeting those stealing, selling or buying the emissions devices.

The bill, approved 40-25, must be matched up with a slightly different House version. But House lawmakers could opt soon to send it to Gov. Tim Walz.

The bill gives authorities more ability to arrest people caught with emissions devices that can’t be traced to a vehicle. And scrap metal dealers could face penalties if they buy stolen converters. There would be requirements that converters contain vehicle identification numbers to be legally transferred, which would allow law enforcement to flag stolen devices maintained in a database.

Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, said his bill might not stop all converter thefts, but he believes it would make a dent.

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“I don't want people to have false hope. This will make a difference in a year from now when we have this database set up,” Marty said. “It will help law enforcement statewide track down converter theft. But I think there's an immediate chilling impact.”

Insurance industry statistics show Minnesota is high on lists of states where converter theft is most common.

The converters are attractive to thieves because they contain valuable metals and can be sawed off cars in a matter of minutes. They can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars to replace, especially for people who lack comprehensive insurance coverage.

Under the bill, vehicle owners who have their converters stolen could seek restitution from those criminally convicted.

In two days of debate, senators from both parties shared stories of having been victims of the theft, which has become a common crime across Minnesota.

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 Feb. 7.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

Republicans argued the bill doesn’t do enough to get ahead of the problem. '

“This is a legislative rope-a-dope,” said Sen. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa. “The bill fails to do something about the guy with the sawzall.”

Others argued it could trip up small scrap metal dealers who unknowingly run afoul of the rules or push sales to neighboring states without the same restrictions.

Sen. Zach Duckworth, R-Lakeville, pushed unsuccessfully for a new anti-theft task force to break up theft rings or better track patterns. 

“Actually go after the folks who are stealing these things. It's one thing to try to catch them on the back end when they're selling them,” Duckworth said. “It's a whole nother thing to actually stop, to prevent and deter the theft from even occurring in the first place.”

He ultimately voted for the bill.

Sen. Matt Klein, DFL-Mendota Heights, said the bill represents meaningful action even if it doesn’t go as far as some pushed for.

“We’ve heard a lot of amendments from the minority party and angry speeches about how we’re not being hard enough with criminals and not going after people with the saws and so forth,” Kline said. “You know what’s less effective than doing this? Doing nothing at all.”