Wilson catalytic converter theft bill passes Senate committee

Amendments in committee add felony penalties, provide $4 million for law enforcement

OLYMPIA – A bill from Sen. Jeff Wilson to crack down on catalytic converter theft passed the Senate Law and Justice Committee Thursday with big changes designed to toughen the proposal.

Senate Bill 5495 is a response to a catalytic converter crime wave, as high precious-metal recycling prices drive thefts nationwide and in Washington state. Over the last two years, thousands of catalytic converters have been removed from vehicles in Washington state by thieves who use saws to hack through tailpipes, often causing thousands of dollars of damage in the process.

The bill now imposes felony penalties for unlawful purchase or sale of stolen catalytic converters, and launches a $4 million law enforcement crackdown that includes grants to local law enforcement agencies to conduct sting operations.

“Now we’re really getting somewhere,” said Wilson, R-Longview. “We’ve heard many good ideas since we introduced this legislation in December, and the bill is getting stronger as it moves through the process. I’m glad the committee recognizes the importance of taking action on this issue this year.”

The measure now moves on to the Senate Ways and Means Committee for further consideration.

With amendments, the bill:

  • Requires scrap dealers to keep careful records of individuals who bring in used catalytic converters for recycling, including photo ID.
  • Prohibits scrap dealers from making cash payments on the spot to individuals selling catalytic converters. Payments in cash would have to be delayed at least five days.
  • Establishes a $1,000-per-converter fine for scrap metal dealers who knowingly purchase a stolen catalytic converter or violate state laws governing scrap-metal purchases.
  • Establishes a $2,000-per-converter fine for possession of a catalytic converter without proof of ownership.
  • Creates a Class C felony for the attempted unlawful sale or purchase of a catalytic converter, with a $5,000 fine per converter. If more than five converters are involved, the crime becomes a Class B felony with tougher penalties.
  • Directs the Washington State Patrol to develop a comprehensive strategy to combat metal theft, and establishes a grant and training program for local law enforcement agencies. Grants would be provided to communities with a demonstrated increase in thefts over the previous two years, for police sting operations targeting the unlawful sale and theft of recyclable metals.
  • Expands the state’s “no-buy” database of suspicious sellers to include those who have attempted to sell or purchase unlawfully obtained metal products, as well as those who have attempted to conduct a transaction under the influence of controlled substances. Scrap dealers already are required to check the database and refuse to purchase from those whose names appear.
  • Provides $4 million to carry out the plan.

Meanwhile, another catalytic converter bill is advancing in the House. HB 1815, favored by the scrap-metal industry, would launch a pilot project to encourage vehicle owners to place identifying marks on their catalytic converters, and set up a state database of identifying marks to help determine ownership when there is reason to suspect a theft has already occurred. Other changes to state law would be deferred for consideration by a task force, which would report back to the Legislature before the 2023 session.

“We should not delay,” Wilson said. “Catalytic converter thefts have skyrocketed these last two years, and waiting another year means more theft in the meantime. We have the answers we need. We can’t keep kicking the catalytic converter down the road.”