Washington state catalytic converter thefts highest in country

Efforts by the Washington state Legislature to crack down on catalytic converter thefts can’t come soon enough.

According to data recently released by BeenVerified.com, a national statistical-analysis firm, Washington rose to the top U.S. states for thefts per 100,000 automobiles in 2021. Washington also ranked third for overall converter thefts over the same time period.

Washington already ranks third in converter thefts for 2022 thus far.

Catalytic converter thefts were on the mind of the legislature last session, culminating in House Bill 1815 that was passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House on March 4 and March 8, respectively, and signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on March 30.

The bill seeks to minimize thefts by cutting off legitimate retail channels. Scrapyards and wreckers that purchase and recycle catalytic converters now face stricter purchasing regulations, making it more difficult for thieves to find places to offload their product.

“At the time of a transaction, every scrap metal business doing business in this state shall produce wherever that business is conducted an accurate and legible record of each transaction involving private metal property or nonferrous metal property,” states the revised version of the bill.

Purchasers must check and record seller IDs and proof of ownership, and cash payments on the spot are prohibited.

HB 1815 also imposes additional fines of $1,000 per catalytic converter for private metal theft and mandates that the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs establish a comprehensive state law enforcement strategy, a training program, and a grant program for local law enforcement agencies in high-crime areas to perform police sting operations.

While the grant program was mandated by the Legislature, it passed unfunded.

“This year’s legislation was an important step, because it makes it harder to fence stolen converters. I’m not sure why the law enforcement money was left out, and I think it should be obvious to everyone that we ought to target the people who are directly responsible. In the Legislature’s current climate, getting a commitment to think about getting tough on crime in 2023 was a victory,” said state Sen. Jeff Wilson (R-Longview) in a press release on Monday, June 13.

The bill, which was revised several times, represents a bipartisan effort to address the scourge of catalytic converter thefts that have plagued Washington in recent years. According to BeenVerified, catalytic converter thefts have risen starkly since 2019, when Washington had just 42 catalytic converter thefts. In 2021, however, the state experienced 4,252 catalytic converter thefts.

“The Legislature did the right thing this year when it took action to combat catalytic converter theft, and I want to commend my colleagues on the other side of the aisle for recognizing that this is one of the most important law enforcement issues in our state,” Wilson said. “The resulting legislation was one of the most important bipartisan compromises of the 2022 legislative session. Unfortunately, it got us only halfway there.”

Wilson was a champion of catalytic converter legislation throughout the session, having introduced Senate Bill 5495 in December 2021. Some aspects of Wilson’s bill, which died in committee, are represented by HB 1815 —notably in increasing documentation requirements for scrap metal dealers purchasing converters.

Harsher punishments championed by Wilson were ultimately eliminated from the final bill, such as a provision that would’ve made the attempted unlawful sale of a catalytic converter a Class C felony. Wilson hopes additional legal consequences will be introduced next session to disincentivize converter thefts even further.

“We didn’t increase prison time. We didn’t fund law enforcement. These were hung up in the Legislature’s bigger debate over policing and incarceration. But if we want to deal with this problem, we’re going to need to tackle crime head-on. The work will have to continue next year,” Wilson said.

The Washington state catalytic converter theft task force, which was established by HB 1815, must provide a preliminary report and recommendations to the transportation and public safety committees of the Legislature by Nov. 1. The final report and recommendations are due to the committees by Jan. 1, 2023.