By District Attorney Summer Stephan
When we think of trends, it’s usually in fashion or style. But in law enforcement, there are also trending crimes. Today, the trend is stealing catalytic converters from automobiles. The part, which aids in making exhaust pollutants less harmful, contain three precious metals: platinum, palladium and rhodium, which are sold to scrap yards.
A catalytic converter can be stolen in just minutes, making cars that sit higher off the ground, easy targets because of the easy access. It’s also rare to catch a thief in the act.
As of December 2021, reports of catalytic converter thefts shot up by 423 % in a one-year period in San Diego County. Last year, more than 2,000 catalytic converters were reported stolen. Since 2018, our office has filed 58 cases against catalytic converter thieves. In the last few months, we’ve filed eight new cases that represent 17 stolen converters. The cases we’ve been able to file are just a drop in the bucket compared to the thousands being stolen each year.
The problem for law enforcement is holding thieves accountable. Even though most catalytic converter thefts meet the state threshold for grand theft, since they are mostly valued above $950, current law makes it difficult to prove that they are stolen, despite how seemingly obvious it may be.
As of now, catalytic converters are practically untraceable because there is no identification number or record of legitimate possession associated with them. The lack of identification makes it easy for thieves and scrap metal businesses to avoid consequences and makes it easier for recyclers to avoid liability for purchasing a stolen converter.
Detectives are sometimes unable to match a stolen catalytic converter to the vehicle it was stolen from — which is a necessary step to pursue a criminal case.
Because of these difficulties, I am supporting SB 919 authored by Brian W. Jones, (R-Santee) that would require car dealers to permanently mark the vehicle identification number on the catalytic converter before sale. This will help law enforcement identify stolen converters and increase the likelihood that we can file a criminal case.
The bill also clarifies the responsibilities of recyclers and will require them to provide detailed records to law enforcement and the bill will make it easier to establish probable cause for arrest and prosecution. If passed into law, SB 919 will give us the tools we need to reduce catalytic converter thefts and hold thieves accountable.
In the meantime, here are steps you can take to protect your catalytic converter:
1. Etch your license plate number onto your catalytic converter. This makes the part identifiable to law enforcement.
2. Park in well-lit areas.
3. Install an anti-theft device.
As your District Attorney, I’m committed to increasing communication and accessibility between the DA’s Office and the public. I hope these consumer and public safety tips have been helpful.