On Wednesday, Jan. 25, a representative from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office testified on behalf of legislation that would aim to mitigate the rampant catalytic converter theft problem by addressing the market demand for these high-value car parts.
Senate Bill 5495, as currently written, would try and reduce the market demand for stolen catalytic converters, which are sold for the value of the precious metals they contain, by imposing regulations to deter potential buyers, including:
– Adding precious metals to the list of materials for which scrap metal businesses must maintain a record of each transaction
– Prohibiting scrap metal businesses from entering into a catalytic converter transaction with anyone who is not a commercial enterprise or owner of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed
– Amending the regulations for scrap metal businesses payment of cash, and record keeping
– Creating a gross misdemeanor crime for scrap metal businesses that knowingly received stolen metal property
On Jan. 25, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Gary Ernsdorff, who the King County Prosecutor’s Office says is informed by years of catalytic converter theft investigations, urged the Senate Law and Justice Committee to consider technical changes to the bill that aim to shrink the marketplace for stolen catalytic converters.
Ernsdoff said in the supply side of the issue, are low-level criminals in a “target rich environment” where vehicles are everywhere and where a quick profit can be turned with $500 net profits for a single catalytic converter.
Furthermore, with Covid-backlogged courts, Ernsdoff said judges are unlikely to hold a low-level offender for a property crime, so an arrest really is just an “inconvenience” as they are back out on the street later that day or maybe the next day.
“So on the supply side, we have big [a] return, and little risk,” Ernsdoff testified.
On the demand side of the catalytic converter market, he said there is big money for recyclers and middlemen who can plausibly deny that they knew these parts were stolen. He said proving guilt is difficult in these circumstances, and investigations are long and costly.
“So on the supply side, big returns and currently little risk,” Ernsdoff said to the Senate Law and Justice Committee. “So the question for you is: Do we throw a lot of money at the supply side, incarcerating our way out of this problem, increasing the standard sentencing range, and increasing the burden on our criminal justice system, or do we attack the demand side with thoughtful regulation?”
Ernsdoff laid out a proposal for additional regulation, including: required recordkeeping and inspection, funded enforcement, and “sure and swift” penalties for recyclers who are not in compliance. They include:
– Strict record keeping requirements, along with what is already proposed in SB 5495, including a photocopy of valid identification, multiple photographs of the catalytic converter in order to individualize it, information of the vehicle it came off of, whether or not they are the vehicle’s owner or reseller, and memorializing every other aspect of the transaction
– Mandatory permissive inspection by enforcement agency, perhaps the Washington State Patrol, and mandatory inspection of paperwork for anyone buying catalytic converters
– A significant fine, $2,000, and forfeiture of any catalytic converter not in compliance with the paperwork requirement
“This is not an unfunded mandate, we need to take a significant portion of those fines and distribute them to an enforcement agency so they have monetary backing to conduct these regulatory investigations,” Ernsdoff urged.
The King County Prosecutor’s office believes this plan would decrease demand for illegal catalytic converters and allow law abiding recyclers to continue conducting their legal and profitable businesses.