Despite public interest in deterring catalytic converter theft, and efforts on the part of individual legislators, it appears the Minnesota’s legislature is unlikely to act this year to disrupt the covert supply chain for stolen catalytic converters (cats).
In recent months, Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) and other Twin Cities media have reported on “cat” theft. According to Sergeant Natalie Davis, St. Paul Police Department (SPPD) records show 602 thefts so far in 2021, on track to double last year’s count of 1102; there were 263 thefts in 2019.
Thefts from open parking lots for businesses and commercial establishments like auto dealers, car rental agencies, and airport park and rides continue. The SPPD sponsored an auto clinic at Allianz Field a week ago to spray paint cats. “Over 1000 people came, and there’s a waiting list of over 4000 for the next event,” said Davis.
“Last September, I took my Ford 250 to my Stillwater dealer to get my brakes fixed. When I came back to pick up my car and turned the key in the ignition, it sounded like a jackhammer. I got mad, and I started to research a bill that would address catalytic converter theft,” said Senator Karin Housley (R-Stillwater), sponsor of SF 206.
EPLN poll results show public engagement
Last week’s EPLN reader poll showed 87.5% support for legislation to deter cat theft. While 83% of the respondents park in garages, several respondents were concerned for drivers who don’t have garages and lack basic auto insurance.
As for individual drivers, 2/3 would agree to have their converters etched or sprayed at their next oil change. More than half were willing to pay at least the cost of an oil change for this service. More than half said they would pay up to $500 for cable cages or cover plates to protect their converters. While the poll provided insights, the sample size of 24 was too small to be statistically significant.
Frustrating Crime Has No Easy Solution
Police and individual drivers are taking actions to make profiting from this crime harder. Besides holding spray-painting clinics, police are using decoy cars to trap would-be thieves.
“It’s a free-for-all when it comes to catalytic converter theft,” said Housley. “No one’s getting penalized for it. You wish you could find out who it is so you could hand $250 to them instead of spending hundreds more to buy a replacement.”
Housley’s adding provisions to her bill for spray-painting converters, training employees of scrap dealers, and levying stiffer penalties (from a gross misdemeanor to a felony) for repeat offenders.
GOP bill (SF 206)
The GOP bill describes processes, like recording transactions with video cameras and written documentation, to create a chain of custody when these parts are traded by scrap dealers. Housley’s bill exempts business-to-business (B2B) transactions, and it preempts local ordinances. Businesses like scrap dealers tend to prefer regulations that happen automatically and efficiently.
Senator Housley acknowledged that scrap dealers may be unaware they’re buying stolen converters that have been laundered through repair shops from other parts of Minnesota. “The police know who these people are. It’s like a ring, and they’ve been doing for it for years.” She thinks there’s a 60% chance that her bill will be amended in conference committee. “Let’s just do something and try it,” she said.
DFL bill (SF 890)
The DFL bill, SF 890, describes regulations woven together to trap stolen cats. It restricts trade to only bona fide automobile repair shops, recycling facilities, or scrap metal dealers. The bill increases the level of documentation by requiring photographs. This puts the burden of proof on scrap dealers to show their cat purchases are legitimate.
It eliminates cash payments to sellers and slows the process of moving cat inventory through a dealer to at least 14 days. “Some feel it’s punitive towards scrap metal dealers,” says Senator Steve Cwodzinski (D-Eden Prairie), a co-sponsor of SF 890.
“There will be an initial added hassle due to paperwork,” acknowledges Cwodzinski, “The paperwork reduction will occur as criminals realize they can’t get away with selling stolen catalytic converters. At the end of the day, this will prevent thefts.”
Action at the legislature
On Wednesday, Senator John Marty (D-Roseville), the chief DFL sponsor, tried to amend the Commerce and Energy Bill to include SF 890. Senate President Jeremy Miller (R-Winona) ruled the amendment not germane. The Senate confirmed his ruling along a nearly party-line vote, R-37 to D-30.
Asked about the likelihood of his bill becoming law, Cwodzinski replied, “Since the Senate voted not to consider it for the omnibus commerce bill, it is going to be pretty difficult to get this passed. We’ll keep trying.”
Pushed into next year
“It’s hard to get everyone around the table when there are conflicting priorities,” mused Housley. Sometimes you just have to get a bill out there and debate on the floor. If everyone walks away a little bit unhappy, it’s probably a good bill.”
One thing the DFL and GOP agree on: “If we don’t get it through this session, this has to be a priority for next year, when we don’t have to pass a budget,” says Senator Cwodzinski. “It’s a must-do for next year,” agrees Senator Housley.
For now, despite a hot market in cat theft, legislation to fight it appears to have drifted into the slow lane. Minnesota drivers and police will have to stay alert.