Council has approved a new $500 fine for the possession of stolen catalytic converters

Council has approved a new $500 fine for the possession of stolen catalytic converters in an attempt to discourage what has become a modern scourge for local residents.

Theft of the auto part has skytrocketed in recent years jumping from 27 calls in 2019 to 229 in 2020, 302 in 2021, 312 in 2022 and 215 calls this year which puts the city on track for more than 500 by year’s end.

The theft is driven by the value of the precious metals contained inside the converters. When installed on a car, the part removes pollution from the exhaust system is is usually easily accessible from underneath the vehicle. Converters use a variety of precious metals often including palladium, rhodium and platinum, that are part of the chemical reaction necessary to clean the exhaust before it exits the vehicle.

A catalytic converter can be worth anywhere from $50 to $1,200 depending on the amount of precious metal inside. The cost to repair the theft to the car owner can be several thousand dollars depending on the individual model.

Nationwide, Carfax estimates as many as 153,000 converters were stolen last year. The company tracked how many were being replaced each year, not just how many were reported stolen, and said they accounted for legitimate repairs.

Prior to the meeting, Santa Monica has no law specifically targeting possession of stolen converters. If police officers found a suspect in posession of the parts, they were unable to charge them with theft unless they could positively identify a victim associated with the individual part.

SMPD Detective Martin Hardy and Sergeant Afonso Lozano said catalytic converters have become a prime target for thieves due to the difficulty in detecting the theft at the time it occurrs and the lack of consequences for possession without proof of ownership.

“We’re averaging about two catalytic converters a night. They’re not sophisticated criminals,” sait Sgt. Lozano. “They’re very easy to easy to do. Our workers, our residents, visitors are constantly being victimized by this crime and we believe that by passing of this ordinance, unlawful possession of catalytic converters, it will assist law enforcement in being able to hopefully hold these criminals and prevent this from occurring. And hopefully get some of these victims back their converters as well.”

To address this issue, the Santa Monica Police Department, in collaboration with the Santa Monica City Attorney’s Office, proposed an ordinance that would make it illegal to possess a catalytic converter that is not attached to a vehicle unless the possessor can provide valid documentation or other proof of lawful possession.

They said the proposed ordinance aims to provide a tool for law enforcement to take action against those found in possession of unlawfully obtained catalytic converters. It would enable the police to hold individuals responsible and discourage theft, while also excluding individuals with legitimate reasons to possess these devices, such as mechanics.

The ordinance just outlaws the possession of an undocumented converter but the officers said there would be discretion when applying the ordinance such as looking for the presence of associated tools, attempts to conceal the items or evidence of legitimate use such as employment at a garage or other associated business.

“It’s going to be based on the officers’ experience, intuition. Again, if it’s three in the morning, officers are responding to the radio call, the individuals are under the influence, there’s burglary tools, there’s multiple catalytic converters, they’re not going to have any documentation that they’re going to the mechanics are coming from a mechanic,” said Sgt. Lozano.

During the discussion, council members acknowledged the challenges in combating catalytic converter thefts and expressed support for the proposed ordinance. They recognized the need to provide law enforcement with the means to address this issue effectively.

Councilman Oscar de la Torre asked what could be done to stop the sale of the stolen parts and if the city could increase penalties.

“I started realizing like, okay, somebody’s buying these catalytic converters, right. So the question for me is, is how do we stop it at that end?”

The officers said SMPD can and does conduct long-term investigations into the buyers of stolen parts but those are complicated and the ability to charge criminals with a crime at the time of that first contact is necessary to start those investigations.

Staff said the city charter limits the fees for these kinds of crimes to $500 and the city can’t increase penalties without a change to the charter.

Matthew Hall has a Masters Degree in International Journalism from City University in London and has been Editor-in-Chief of SMDP since 2014. Prior to working at SMDP he managed a chain of weekly papers...