State puts the breaks on catalytic converter theft

A close up look at an old catalytic converter in hand with an engine room in the background. Photo by NongAsimo on Adobe Stock.

Tulare and Kern County Assemblyman Vince Fong authors bill to help prosecute, deter catalytic converter thefts across California

SACRAMENTO – A bill authored by San Joaquin Valley Assemblyman Vince Fong aims to cut down on catalytic converter thefts across the state, which has been a persistent issue over the last few years.

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill (AB) 641 into law Oct. 8 after it received unanimous support in the state legislature. Law enforcement officers expect the bill, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2024, to deter thieves from stealing catalytic converters by imposing penalties on individuals found with multiple converters in their possession that are not connected to a sanctioned use.

“It’ll definitely help discourage theft by increasing the penalties on the criminals,” Lt. Thaddeus Ashford of the Dinuba Police Department said. “It’s another tool that we can use to be able to charge these people that we find.”

According to an Oct. 16 press release from Fong, whose district encompasses parts of Kern and Tulare County, including Exeter and Visalia, he introduced the bill because 1,600 catalytic converters were stolen each month in the state of California in 2021, resulting in $23 million in repair costs.

“Law enforcement needs more tools to hold thieves accountable and protect California motorists,” Fong said. “This bill will help discourage theft, increase penalties on criminals and bring financial relief to California families, businesses and nonprofits.”

Tulare County Sheriff Mike Bourdreaux said in the press release that catalytic converter theft also impacts the agricultural industry in the county; converters are found on many different types of vehicles other than cars and trucks.

What the bill does

AB 641 expands the definition of an “automobile dismantler” to include someone who has in their possession nine or more used catalytic converters that have been cut from a motor vehicle using a sharp implement, like a power tool. This is significant because anyone who meets the definition of an automobile dismantler but does not have the proper permit or license is subject to criminal penalties.

Ashford said that previously, if the department found someone in possession of multiple catalytic converters who was suspected of theft, there was no recourse they could take unless they were able to prove that the person did in fact steal the converters.

With no way to identify what vehicle or person a catalytic converter belongs to, proving theft is difficult. Now, people can be discouraged from stealing catalytic converters because if they do not have a verified reason for having multiple in their possession, they may still face legal consequences.

Within existing state law, an “automobile dismantler” is defined as someone who is in the business of dismantling vehicles for destruction, for the purpose of buying or selling the integral parts and materials of the vehicles or for the dealing of used vehicle parts.

According to the legislative counsel’s digest on the bill, it is illegal for a person to act as an automobile dismantler without having an established business, being licensed with the Department of Motor Vehicles and meeting other state requirements.

Anyone who is not an authorized automobile dismantler who has nine or more catalytic converters in their possession can be found guilty of an infraction and a fine of up to $100 on the first offense. Subsequent offenses could result in misdemeanor charges and a fine of at least $250 for the second offense, at least $500 for the third offense and at least $1,000 for any following offenses.

Catalytic converter thefts

Catalytic converter thefts have been a widespread issue throughout the state and nation in recent years due to the value of the precious metals the converters contain. Sanger Police Department Cmdr. Joshua Johnson said that the general ease of theft also contributes to the problem’s ongoing nature.

“It’s noteworthy that catalytic converter thefts have been a prevalent issue, not only in our community but also in various regions across the state,” Johnson said. “However, I’m pleased to report that we’ve observed a reduction in converter thefts in Sanger in recent months.”

Ashford said that to deter catalytic converter theft, drivers should always be aware of where they are parking their cars, especially at night. Park underneath street lights, in driveways or garages or in busy areas to keep thieves away.

Further, Ashford said he has seen many people paint their catalytic converters in bright colors or etch their license plate number into the converter as a way to both identify their part if it is stolen and to reduce the resale value of the part.

Johnson said that a comprehensive approach is necessary to reduce catalytic converter thefts locally.

“This involves public awareness campaigns, community engagement and collaboration with recycling centers to monitor converter transactions,” Johnson said. “Proactive patrols and undercover operations are also integral components of our strategy.”

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