Scrapped: New calls to close loopholes ‘exacerbating’ catalytic converter theft in Minnesota

The unmistakable sound of a car running without its catalytic converter is getting louder in Minnesota.

Recent studies of insurance claims, including one by State Farm, place Minnesota in the top five states for theft of the valuable car part — stolen and scrapped for its trove of precious metals.

Calls for changes to Minnesota law are getting louder as well.

A bill from Rep. Ruth Richardson, DFL-Mendota Heights, would add criminal penalties for the possession and purchase of catalytic converters without certain documentation.

“We want to be able to track that when a catalytic converter that is detached is being sold that it can actually be traced back to a vehicle that the person has ownership over,” Richardson said.

The bill is moving through the state Legislature and passed in the House on Monday afternoon. The legislation still needs to pass through the Senate.

But 5 INVESTIGATES found that the scrap industry continues to resist reforms despite research that suggests current state law “exacerbates catalytic converter theft.”

‘Race against time’

Jonathan Reese says he worried his 2015 Prius would be targeted for its catalytic converter as soon as he inherited the car from a family member last December.

He planned to have additional protection installed on the bottom of the car since he parked it on the street outside of his condominium building in Minneapolis.

“I was kind of in a race against time to get shielding on it,” Reese said. “But new tires were my priority.”

Three days later, Reese discovered he was too late.

“The gas engine kicked in, and the noise was pretty obvious,” Resse said. “I lost the race. I already knew what it was going to cost me.”

Reese filed an insurance claim to cover part of the $1,700 repair bill and filed a police report, but he has little hope that the thieves will ever be caught.

“This was clearly an organization. Somebody had training and time to get it right,” Reese said.

Tracking theft

Individual cities across the Twin Cities have launched initiatives to try to discourage theft by marking catalytic converters and etching them with VIN numbers. 

Bloomington created a city ordinance making it a misdemeanor to possess a detached catalytic converter without a receipt.

The police department tracked nearly 450 thefts in 2022, and Cmdr. Mike Utecht says more needs to be done.

“It would be nice to have one uniform state law,” Utecht said. “If they show up at a scrap yard or a recycling center… trying to put the puzzle together as to where they came from and then who dropped them off.”

A ‘major loophole’

Minnesota’s current law on catalytic converter thefts includes a “major loophole,” according to the National Salvage Vehicle Reporting Program (NSVRP).

In a white paper published last year, the non-profit research organization criticized the state’s law because it doesn’t require scrap yards to document all of its transactions.

“This law exacerbates catalytic converter theft because it shields illegal activity from being identifiable,” wrote Howard Nusbaum, NSVRP’s executive director.

Nusbaum explained what was at stake while speaking at a recent conference.

“Ultimately, catalytic converters would not be stolen if the people who steal them couldn’t then sell them up the chain,” Nusbaum said.

Roadblocks to reform

Closing loopholes in current state law is one of the goals of Richardson’s legislation.

The bill would require scrap yards to collect vehicle identification numbers associated with detached catalytic converters.

Scrap dealers would also have to report transactions to an electronic database by August 2024. 

It would be available to law enforcement, and similar to one pawn shops are already required to use.

“I think we can learn a lot from how this works in other industries,” Richardson said.

As 5 INVESTIGATES reported, Minnesota lawmakers repealed reforms in 2015 that would have already created an “automated property system” after the scrap industry expressed opposition.

“These are really powerful industries and lobbies, and we need to ensure that is not on the basis of stolen goods,” Richardson said.

National vs. state solutions

State Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, is also a scrap yard owner.

“The last thing that a scrap yard wants to do is buy stolen material,” Miller said. “If there’s any indication or any suspicion that the material is stolen, not only will we not buy it, but we’ll notify law enforcement.”

Miller says he supports a federal solution to the problem of catalytic converter theft rather than changes to state law.

“The challenge with doing something like this is I’m not sure that it’s actually going to prevent the theft of catalytic converters because most of them aren’t being sold here in the state of Minnesota,” Miller said.

He points to recent busts of theft rings on the east and west coasts that recovered catalytic converters stolen from several states.

This month, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-MN, reintroduced federal legislation, known as the PART Act, that would make catalytic converter theft a federal offense and would require improved record keeping by those who purchase the parts.

In a recent interview, Klobuchar told 5 INVESTIGATES that state and federal reforms can work together.

“I just think more action is good in this area,” Klobuchar said. “State action sometimes … pushes some recalcitrant lawmakers in Washington to actually do stuff.”

Creating a deterrent

Like many victims, Jonathan Reese is not waiting on lawmakers to find a solution.

He now has a shield installed over the new catalytic converter on his Prius and has stickers warning would-be thieves of the added protection.

“For probably six or seven years, I’ve had friends who’ve been getting hit,” Reese said.

He says he hopes any future reforms will find a way to make this kind of theft less profitable.

“Anything to kind of disrupt that organization would probably help,” Reese said. “Especially when it comes to making them slip up and eventually catching them.”

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