Catalytic converter

A catalytic converter can fetch $200 and cost thousands to replace. (Photo by Dylan Miettinen/Minnesota Reformer.)

Minnesota lawmakers have agreed to fund a new pilot program aimed at deterring catalytic converter thefts, which have skyrocketed in recent months along with the price of the precious metals.

The thefts have affected hundreds of Minnesotans over the past year, who have had to pay up to $3,000 to replace a sawed off catalytic converter, which are required to filter out harmful pollutants from gas-powered vehicles.

The agreement comes as the state’s legislative leaders rush to hammer out the details of a two-year, $52 billion budget before June 30 when large swaths of the state government would be forced to shut down.

The state will direct $400,000 toward a new pilot program, which would pay for car owners to have their catalytic converters engraved with their vehicles’ identification numbers or otherwise permanently marked so the parts could be identified if removed.

Once a catalytic converter is removed from a vehicle, it’s often impossible to prove where it came from and if it was stolen.

“Right now, law enforcement might come across catalytic converters in someone’s trunk, but there’s no way to know whether those are stolen or not,” said Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, who chairs the Commerce Finance and Policy committee. “So this should make it easier for law enforcement to handle these (cases), but also hopefully will deter thefts before they even happen.”

Both DFL and Republican lawmakers introduced bills aimed at addressing the spike in catalytic converter thefts last session, including a bill that would have criminalized possessing a detached catalytic converter without documentation of the vehicle it came from. Stephenson said scrap metal dealers gave him the idea for the pilot program.

The market for catalytic converters is driven by scrap metal dealers who — sometimes unknowingly — pay thieves up to a couple hundreds dollars to harvest the precious metals inside, including platinum, palladium and rhodium, the latter two of which are more valuable than gold.

Under current Minnesota law, it’s a crime to possess property known to be stolen or reasonably suspected of being stolen. That could deter scrap metal dealers from buying catalytic converters engraved with vehicle identification numbers in the first place.

“It would expose the scrap dealer to significant liability if they had reason to know that a catalytic converter was stolen,” Stephenson said.

Stephenson also said lawmakers agreed to new rules requiring anyone who buys a catalytic converter to abide by the same rules as scrap dealers, who must take a photo of the seller and pay by check.

St. Paul police recently held an event where they spray painted drivers’ catalytic converters, which they say deter scrap yards from purchasing them but it’s unclear how effective the effort was.

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Minnesota Reformer and reports on labor and housing.

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