Washington Democrats, Republicans offer differing solutions for catalytic converter thefts


With an unprecedented increase in catalytic converter thefts across the state in recent months, Republicans and Democrats in the state Legislature have introduced competing bills in an attempt to stymie the illegal removal and sale of the vehicle part.

Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, has introduced House Bill 1815 which, if passed, would create a state catalytic converter task force and work to deter catalytic converter thefts by stamping vehicle identification numbers (VINs) or other unique identifiers to the car part.

Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, has introduced Senate Bill 5495, which would make it a misdemeanor for scrap dealers to knowingly purchase stolen catalytic converters and would also require purchasers to maintain records on sales and delay cash payments by five days.

Both bills were prefiled Dec. 6 in the leadup to the short, 60-day legislative session, which convened last week. Both bills have also garnered bipartisan support in each house of the Legislature.

“Our constituents who depend on their vehicles to get to work and other life activities lose not only money, but time getting them replaced. Even though insurance covers part of these expensive replacements and repairs, these losses hit consumers in the pocket book once again when their premiums rise,” Ryu told the House Public Safety Committee during a Tuesday hearing.

Catalytic converters are an expensive, durable part found underneath most manufactured vehicles that produce emissions. These parts contain precious earth metals that can often be resold to recyclers who turn a blind eye, motivating thieves to climb underneath vehicles with hand or electric saws to remove the part. Recyclers will often ask for a VIN number, though, to deter crime.

Ryu’s fix focuses on requiring the Washington State Patrol to establish a pilot project to deter the crime by stamping either the VIN number or another unique identifier on the part. Her bill would also establish a state task force to look at existing state laws and recommend additional fixes to the Legislature.

Rep. Roger Goodman, Democratic chair of the House Public Safety Committee, said he would like to see the task force identify who specifically is purchasing these stolen catalytic converters, and noted that the committee would be working to refine the bill before it saw executive action.

Jim King, with the independent business association, suggested not using the VIN number on a catalytic converter piece.

“One of the reasons we know a catalytic converter is stolen when it shows up in our auto records is when the person trying to sell it cannot identify the VIN number. So, you do not want to give them the VIN number by engraving it on the part,” he said.

James McMahan, with the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said his organization was in support of the bill, though he suggested a provision be added to make it illegal to buy, purchase or sell a used catalytic converter without proper documentation, such as vehicle registration.

During the committee hearing, Goodman said the goal was not to penalize scrap yards because that would require them to comply with a completely different precious medals statute, which “is not what they deal with.”

Wilson’s bill would, in part, do just that.

If passed, SB 5495 would prohibit scrap dealers from purchasing catalytic converters except from commercial enterprises and vehicle owners by making it a gross misdemeanor, punishable by a fine up to $1,000 per offense, for knowingly purchasing a stolen converter.

Catalytic converter sellers would be required to disclose vehicle make, model, year and the VIN, too.

“The Democrats’ plan wants this to be studies, and wants a pilot project to come back in a year or so. I don’t think that that’s fast enough,” Wilson told The Chronicle on Tuesday. He added later: “I’m quite certain that Washingonians are expecting consequences versus coddling when it comes to this crime.”

For many models, replacements and repairs on catalytic converters — a part that, according to the Universal Technical Institute, changes harmful compounds from an engine’s emissions into safe gas, such as steam — can cost many thousands of dollars.

Washington state residents just can’t bear that financial burden right now, especially with the pandemic, Wilson said.

While Wilson called Ryu’s idea of engraving VINs into the converter a “good step,” but perhaps not a feasible one, the bill just adds more unneeded bureaucracy to the mix. But he said he’s “more than willing” to let the House make amendments on his legislation if the Senate brings it to a floor vote. He could also see a reality where both bills are passed this session.

As of Wednesday, Wilson’s bill had been referred to the Senate Law and Justice Committee, though no hearing had yet been scheduled. There is currently no companion bill in the house, Wilson said.