LA and Sacramento crack down on catalytic converter thefts

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Van Nuys mechanic Edward Luna holds two used catalytic converters, which thieves are stealing from cars in record numbers across Los Angeles. Photo by Megan Jamerson/KCRW.

City and state officials have passed new laws in California to address a recent spike in catalytic converter thefts such as increasing criminal penalties for theft, and limiting re-sales of the emissions-reducing device.

The response comes as insurance claims for thefts increased nationally from a reported 1,298 in 2018 to more than 64,000 in 2022, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. California leads the nation with the most claims, and people in Los Angeles County have especially suffered. In 2022, around 19,000 catalytic converters were stolen in LA County, according to the county sheriff’s department.

Drivers can protect their vehicles by parking in a secure area, and installing a protective metal shield around a catalytic converter. But most LA drivers have no choice but to park on the street, and many are learning that protective devices don’t always stop thieves. These victims can face an expensive and headache-filled journey to repair their car.

The crime is difficult to investigate, law enforcement officials say, because catalytic converters often lack identifying information to tie the part back to the original owner, so anyone caught with a used part can claim they got it legitimately.

With no end in sight, lawmakers from the City of Los Angeles and the state legislature have enacted these new laws.

City of Los Angeles

The City of Los Angeles is making it illegal to possess a catalytic converter without proof of ownership as of June 5.

Thieves face a $1,000 fine or up to six months in jail under the new ordinance. Anyone found with the part unattached to a car will be required to show documentation that they are the lawful owner or have the owner’s written consent – whether there’s evidence the part was stolen or not. Each catalytic converter found in a person's possession will be a separate offense. 

LA City Councilmember John Lee proposed the ordinance, calling it a new tool for law enforcement: “The intent here is just to stop the individuals who are seeing this as a crime that can't be stopped,” says Lee.

The number of catalytic converter thefts reported to the LAPD has risen dramatically in the past few years. Figure by Gabriela Quarante/KCRW.

The Ccity Ccouncil passed the ordinance on  an 8-4 vote in April. Councilmember Eunisses Hernandez says she voted against the law because she has concerns it would disproportionately criminalize Black and Brown communities. “It just creates a wider net to catch people who perhaps are not involved in any of these situations,” says Hernandez.

Susie Cooley, a Los Angeles-based public defender, agrees. She says creating new or stiffer criminal penalties typically impacts “the historically marginalized in our community.”

In response to the law, Councilmember Hernandez’s office plans to earmark funds from her office budget to offer community education and access to anti-theft devices for a limited number of residents in Council District 1 later this year. 

LA County Sheriff’s Captain Martin Rodriguez says he believes the ordinance will act as a deterrent to stop a crime that often affects some of LA’s most vulnerable communities. As the lead officer for the countywide Task Force for Regional Auto Theft, Rodriguez says he sees the most catalytic converter thefts in the Newton division in South LA. If the ordinance allows deputies to make more arrests, “​That's one less thief who is not out there for a month stealing,” says Rodriguez.

State of California

The California State Legislature passed three bills in 2022 to address catalytic converter thefts, all of which are now in effect. 

AB-1653 allows the California Highway Patrol’s Regional Property Crimes Task Force to provide resources and assist local law enforcement investigate catalytic converter thefts. 

SB 1087 limits who can legally sell a catalytic converter. Authorized sales can only be done by those who can prove the part came from their own vehicle, licensed auto dismantlers, auto repair dealers and similar businesses. 

AB 1740 requires metal recyclers to maintain documentation on the catalytic converters they purchase by recording the year, make, model and vehicle ID number, or VIN, of the car the part came from.

A fourth bill, SB 986, failed to pass in 2022. It would have required auto dealers to etch a car’s VIN number onto a catalytic converter when the part is installed, if it is accessible. The Los Angeles County DA supported the bill, saying the etching would aid law enforcement investigations and prosecutions. Dealerships were opposed, saying it would not deter theft and would be too costly.