Sen. Jeff Wilson baffled by scrap-industry attack on catalytic converter theft bill

Longview senator: ‘When catalytic converter components are worth more than gold, we have to change the way we do business’

OLYMPIA – Sen. Jeff Wilson said fast-growing catalytic converter theft compels lawmakers to consider changes in the way auto wreckers and scrap dealers do business, and he is baffled by industry resistance that surfaced at the first hearing on his proposal Tuesday.

Wilson, R-Longview, is sponsor of Senate Bill 5740. The bill responds to an explosion of catalytic converter theft since 2020, as skyrocketing prices for precious-metal components have given thieves an incentive to crawl underneath vehicles, lop off tailpipes and sell converters for recycling. It targets the organized theft rings that are behind the increase in crime, as has been demonstrated in recent prosecutions of two multistate criminal networks based in Oregon.

Under Wilson’s proposal, only licensed scrap dealers and auto wreckers would be able to buy used catalytic converters after they have been detached from motor vehicles. Buying a used catalytic converter without a license would become either a Class B or Class C felony, depending on the number involved.

“We need to get after the guy working out of the back of a truck in a parking lot or a dark alley,” Wilson said. “It’s already against the law to steal a catalytic converter, but when people fence them, that’s where it becomes an organized crime. That’s why I was so surprised at the resistance I saw from the scrap metal industry and the auto wreckers at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Law and Justice Committee. I think the public ought to know what we are arguing about in Olympia.

“We have never seen a crime explode like this one. Washington had a 10,000 percent increase in catalytic converter thefts between 2019 and 2021. Last year this state was ranked No. 3 in the country, with more than 4,200 converters reported stolen – and those are just the thefts reported to police.

“Yet the scrap metal industry and the auto wreckers tell us current law is working fine and nothing needs to change. All we need to do is look at the evidence of our own eyes and we can see that isn’t true. When catalytic converter components are worth more than gold, we have to change the way we do business.”

Rhodium, used in catalytic converters, is currently trading at $9,700 an ounce, five times higher than the price of gold. Other precious metals used in catalytic converters are palladium, $1,505 an ounce, and platinum, $989 an ounce.

Until last year, Washington treated catalytic converters as a car part no different than others removed during the auto wrecking and dismantling process. But lawmakers changed their approach last year when they passed House Bill 1815. Under the state’s new rules, catalytic converter sales to scrapyards are treated with the same scrutiny and record-keeping requirements as other transactions that might involve criminal activity, such as the scrapping of street signs, copper wiring and metal guardrails. Sellers are required to provide ID and affidavits of ownership, and cash payments on the spot are prohibited.

During Tuesday’s hearing, industry representatives said the old approach was better and that existing laws are adequate. They complained the proposed licensing requirements do not make allowance for wholesalers who buy catalytic converters from auto wreckers and resell to recyclers. They urged instead that the state launch a program to engrave numbers on catalytic converter casings.

Wilson said, “Engraving numbers on 2.8 million cars and trucks would be an enormous cost for somebody else to bear, for something that would only help us track crime, not prevent it. As for the wholesaler situation, we can always fix that with a minor amendment to the bill.

“That’s what’s so strange about the conflict we are seeing today. Normally in Olympia, we deal with details like that in advance. We shouldn’t be fighting about this. Every two hours in this state, somebody somewhere is sawing off a catalytic converter, and the people are demanding action.”