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Council to Consider Law to Curb Skyrocketing Catalytic Converter Thefts

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By Jorge Casuso

May 18, 2023 -- Ninety-nine percent of all catalytic converter theft cases in Santa Monica -- which total 50 per month -- have gone unsolved because there are no laws defining and prosecuting them, City officials said.

At a special meeting Wednesday, the City Council will take up legislation to help curb the thefts -- which have risen from 214 reported in 2020 to 281 in 2021 to 312 last year, according to City staff.

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That number could more than double this year, which has seen thefts jump to 151 in the first three months.

"Currently, under California law, a police officer who encounters an individual in possession of a catalytic converter under suspicious circumstances must locate the rightful owner before making an arrest for theft or possession of stolen property," staff wrote in a report to the Council.

"If the officer is unable to locate the rightful owner, the person in possession of the catalytic converter may be released absent additional evidence of criminal activity."

Catalytic converters and tools recovered during arrest
Catalytic converters and tools recovered during arrest of four suspects for grand theft last December (Courtesy SMDP)

There is currently no alternative under City, State or Federal legislation to define and punish the theft of catalytic converters or the recycling or sale of those that are unlawfully obtained.

There is also no current law "requiring individuals to provide proof to law enforcement as to how they obtained catalytic converters," staff said.

This prevents law enforcement from "seizing suspected stolen catalytic converters when no victim is present."

The lack of existing laws poses a challenge for police to enforce the thefts and enables the growing criminal enterprise, staff said.

"This ordinance would provide the Santa Monica Police Department with clearly established legal authority to deter this criminal activity and, over time, reduce the number of catalytic converter thefts within the City," staff said.

The proposed law would establish "zero-tolerance" for catalytic converter thefts, impose sanctions for possessing stolen converters and prevent offenders from profiting from their sale and recycling.

The ordinance would also provide "indirect justice to the victims of catalytic converters whose cases will go unsolved" and "reduce Part I crime statistics which have been negatively impacted" by the thefts.

In addition, the law would minimize the money and staff time spent in "deterring and investigating catalytic converter thefts," staff said.

Santa Monica's law goes far beyond SB-1087, signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last September, that prohibits any person from purchasing a used catalytic converter from anybody other than certain specified sellers.

The devices -- which convert toxic gases into less toxic pollutants -- contain platinum and other precious metals that are highly sought by scrap metal dealers.

Thieves can make anywhere from $25 to $300 for a standard catalytic converter and as much as $1,400 for those from hybrid vehicles, which require the use of more precious metals, according to experts.

Using a battery operated power saw, a thief can cut out a catalytic converter from under a vehicle within minutes, police officials said.

According to Carfax, the Toyota Prius is the most targeted car in the western states for catalytic converter theft, including California.

Santa Monica police have said that Prius is also the most targeted vehicle in the City, where hybrids and electric vehicles are common.

Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed nationwide. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), between 2018 and 2022, there was a 1,215 percent jump in catalytic converter thefts.

Claims filed for caltalytic converter thefts exploded between 2018, when there were fewer than 1,300 claims, and 2020, when nearly 14,500 claims were filed, according to the NICB.

Last month, a multi-state ring involving seven theives who worked with "the skill and speed of a NASCAR pit crew" made off with nearly 500 catalytic converters from vehicles, according to a report in USA Today.

An investigation by FBI Boston's Organized Crime Task Force and Massachusetts State Police dubbed "Operation Cut and Run" led to the arrests and federal charges.

"The crime, according to court documents, takes less than one minute, and effectively leaves these vehicles disabled," said U.S. Attorney for Massachusetts Rachael Rollins, adding that the thieves targeted more than 470 vehicles from 2022 to 2023.

On some nights, the thieves hit ten vehicles, and on a single night they stole as many 26 catalytic converters, Rollins said.

Last November, the US Department of Justice charged 21 people involved in a catalytic converter ring operating in nine states that netted as much as $545 million reselling the metals during the multi-year operation.

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