Possession of Catalytic Converters Unlawful in West Hollywood

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At a regular West Hollywood City Council meeting on Monday, June 27, 2022, The City Council directed the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to prohibit unlawful possession of catalytic converters in the City of West Hollywood. The move is in response to a nationwide rise in catalytic converter thefts over the past several years.

The council also directed the Communications Department to utilize all appropriate communications tools to promote future catalytic converter etching events held by the West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station for West Hollywood residents, as well as direct the City’s Community & Legislative Affairs Division to monitor state legislation aimed at preventing catalytic converter theft and take positions in accordance with the City’s lobbying and advocacy plan.

A catalytic converter is an external component of a vehicle, accessible from the underside of a parked car. It is an exhaust emission control device that converts toxic gases and pollutants into less harmful gasses.

According to a City Staff report, there has been a sharp spike in catalytic converter thefts nationwide in recent years. The reason for these thefts is catalytic converters contain platinum, rhodium, and palladium. These metals are expensive and can be sold for several hundred dollars per piece, depending on the size of the converter and the current rate on the metals it contains. The catalytic converter can cost on average up to $2000 to replace, and it is illegal to drive a car without one. The resulting gap in the exhaust system also makes the car run poorly until it is fixed. The increase in theft, combined with supply chain issues, has resulted in a shortage of replacement catalytic converters.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau – an insurance industry group that works to combat insurance fraud and crime – the number of reports of stolen catalytic converters has skyrocketed in the last several years. In 2019, there were just under 4,000 reports of stolen catalytic converters. That number jumped to more than 17,000 in 2020, and more than 52,000 last year. According to the Personal Insurance Federation of California, California had the highest number of insurance claims in the country, accounting for 28% of all theft claims in 2021.

Catalytic converter thefts are on the rise for multiple reasons including: (1) the ease and undetectable nature of committing such thefts, potentially in a matter of seconds and through the use of common tools such as a reciprocating saw; (2) the ability to recycle catalytic converters at scrap metal yards for high dollar returns ranging from $200 to $1,200 per catalytic converter; and (3) loopholes in legislation protecting criminals from prosecution unless a victim can be identified.

There is currently no law to define and punish catalytic converter thefts absent an identifiable victim. Additionally, there is currently no law requiring individuals to provide proof to law enforcement as to how they obtained catalytic converters in their possession. This limits law enforcement’s ability to protect the public by preventing catalytic converter thefts and seize suspected stolen catalytic converters when there is no identifiable victim present. As a result, preventing and punishing these crimes at present is nearly impossible due to the ease and speed with which catalytic converter thefts can be committed and the difficulty of tracing a particular catalytic converter back to its prior owner (the victim), because catalytic converters typically have no identifying markers. Individuals in possession of stolen catalytic converters are able to recycle them for substantial profit at relatively low risk, while victims are forced to commit to costly repairs.

Several cities and states throughout the country have begun adopting legislation to better prevent and penalize catalytic converter theft. This item directs the City Attorney to draft an ordinance to prohibit possession of a catalytic converter if it is not attached to a vehicle, unless the possessor has valid documentation or other proof to verify that they are in lawful possession of the catalytic converter.

By making it illegal to possess an unattached catalytic converter absent proof of ownership or lawful possession, this ordinance would: (1) establish zero-tolerance for catalytic converter thefts; (2) establish penalties for possessing stolen catalytic converters; (3) prohibit the falsification of information in documents and records used to verify ownership or lawful possession of a catalytic converter; and (4) help prevent criminals from profiting from the sale and recycling of stolen catalytic converters.

One of the biggest hurdles in prosecuting stolen converters is that there isn’t any state law regulating their possession. This ordinance would provide a tool to the City and the Sheriff’s Department to help crack down on these thefts in the absence of other state laws.

Other Protections Against Catalytic Converter Theft

There are anti-theft measures people can take and devices that can be installed on cars to help prevent catalytic converter theft. This includes installing a steel plate to protect the underside of the vehicle, having the catalytic converter welded in place, or installing specialty motion-sensing alarms. When available, it is recommended to park in a locked garage or in a well-lit area if possible.

Local police departments often recommend engraving or etching the converter with the vehicle identification number (VIN) or license plate number. This may help deter theft or may alert a reputable scrap dealer that the device is stolen and help identify the owner. The identifying factors can also help law enforcement identify and connect the converter to the vehicle in the event it is stolen and recovered.

The West Hollywood Sheriff’s Station recently held a catalytic converter etching event in May 2022 and plans to hold other events in the future. This item provides direction to the City’s Communications Department to help promote any future events through the City’s communication channels.

California legislators are currently considering several bills to help curtail catalytic converter theft. SB 986 (Umberg) would prohibit a dealer or retailer from selling a new or used motor vehicle equipped with a catalytic converter unless the catalytic converter has been engraved or etched with the vehicle’s VIN. AB 2682 (Gray) would similarly prohibit a manufacturer from delivering a new vehicle assembled after January 1, 2024, equipped with a catalytic converter unless the catalytic converter has been permanently marked with the vehicle’s VIN. Other bills, such as SB 1087 (Gonzalez), AB 1740 (Muratsuchi), and AB 2407 (O’Donnell), would also help to increase the tracking of catalytic converter sales and outline parameters for who may purchase or possess these auto parts.

This item directs staff to monitor these bills and other legislative proposals related to catalytic converter theft protection and take positions on these bills in accordance with the City’s lobbying and advocacy plan.

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