ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — The Minnesota Senate voted Thursday to make it harder for thieves to sell stolen catalytic converters, a crime that has skyrocketed across the country in recent years.
Thefts of the pollution control devices from cars and trucks more than quadrupled from 3,389 in 2019 to 14,433 in 2020, and jumped dramatically again in 2021 to over 52,000, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau. A major reason is the sharp rise in prices for the precious metals that go into the converters, such as rhodium, platinum and palladium. And experts say many thefts aren't covered by insurance, so they go unreported.
Minnesota ranks third in the country for catalytic converter thefts behind California and Texas, according to the state Department of Commerce. The agency isn't sure why Minnesota ranks so high. But experts testified in hearings last month that the parts are easy to steal, easy to sell, there is little risk of being caught, and even less risk of being prosecuted.
"It's going to have an impact on reducing theft in this state," the chief sponsor, Democratic Sen John Marty, of Roseville, said during the floor debate, noting that the bill, which passed by a 40-25 vote, has strong support from law enforcement. "I think it's going to have a big impact on it."
Thieves can get $500 to $1,500 apiece for catalytic converters. But Marty told his fellow senators it can cost $2,000 to $3,000 for a car owner to replace one, resulting in higher insurance costs for everyone, and a victim might have to wait several weeks for a replacement part before they can drive their car again.
The Minnesota bill is similar to model legislation that the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators is promoting across the country. The group has said the bill should serve as an example for other states in how to tackle the problem, Marty told his colleagues.
The bill would prohibit scrap metal dealers from purchasing a converter that is not attached to a vehicle unless it bears identifying markings that can be used to trace it, such as the VIN number. Dealers would have to enter the information into an electronic database to help law enforcement trace the parts.
Prosecutors wouldn't have to prove that a converter was stolen. It would simply be illegal in most cases to possess an unmarked converter that wasn't attached to a vehicle. Sellers would have to provide proof of ownership, and only registered dealers could buy used converters. Illegal possession of one would be a misdemeanor and two would be a gross misdemeanor. But possessing three to 10 would become a felony punishable by up to five years in prison, having 11 to 70 could result in up to 10 years, and 71 or more could mean up to 20 years.
Several Republican senators argued during the debate that the bill would be unfairly harsh to small scrap dealers that unwittingly make a mistake without deterring organized criminal groups that can smuggle stolen converters out of state.
"This bill is not going to fix the problem," said GOP Sen. Gary Dahms, of Redwood Falls. "This is one of those feel-good bills, if you folks that are voting for this could go back your districts and say how much you've done when you've done nothing."
But Joe Boche, a special agent with the Commerce Department's fraud bureau, testified at one hearing that the bill should deter a lot of thieves who are just looking for quick cash for drugs.
The Senate added amendments to address dealers' concerns, so the bill needs to go back to the House — which passed it 113-15 last month — for further action before it's sent to Democratic Gov. Tim Walz for his expected signature.