OLYMPIA — As far as thefts go, catalytic converters make for a sweet target: all it takes is a good saw and a minute or three beneath a vehicle to free the prize.
“It’s a target-rich environment, right?” Gary Ernsdorff, of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, told state lawmakers Tuesday. “The vehicles are all around us, no entry required, so car alarms are ineffective. This is easy pickings.”
Amid a spike in thefts of catalytic converters — the emissions-control devices that contain precious metals which can be sold for scrap — Washington lawmakers are grappling with how to make the pickings a little less easy.
In King County, for example, 11 catalytic converters were reported stolen in 2019 for the entire year, officials have said. That jumped to 241 reported thefts for just the first half of 2021.
It remains to be seen what lawmakers will do — if anything — with competing proposals by Republicans and Democrats in this year’s legislative session.
Ernsdorff spoke Tuesday at a state Senate Law & Justice Committee hearing where lawmakers debated one proposal geared at stopping a spike in thefts that have come amid the pandemic.
Sponsored by Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, Senate Bill 5495 would add precious metals to a list of transactions that scrap metal businesses must record.
It prohibits such businesses from doing transactions for catalytic converters, unless they are with a commercial enterprise or the owner of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter came, according to a legislative analysis.
Among other things, SB 5495 also creates a gross misdemeanor penalty — or up to 364 days in jail and as much as a $5,000 fine — for those businesses to knowingly receive stolen materials.
The bill, which also has Democratic co-sponsors, is scheduled to get a committee vote Thursday.
“Your family car, your church bus, your firetruck, your ambulance, your kid’s car, your car,” Wilson said at the public hearing. “Any vehicle seems to be a target of this unless you’re somebody that may own an all-electric vehicle.”
During the hearing, the bill received quick pushback in from lobbyists employed by Schnitzer Steel, of Tacoma, and the Institute of Scrap Metal Recycling Industries.
“It is already illegal under current law for a scrapyard to purchase stolen material,” said Holly Chisa, who represents the institute. Scrapyards are already required to document purchases of personal metal property, she added, and keep those records for five years.
Both lobbyists said they prefer House Bill 1815, which is also scheduled for a committee vote Thursday.
Sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu, D-Shoreline, that bill would create a task force to review state laws related to catalytic converter theft and develop recommendations for the future.
The proposal would also establish a pilot project through the Washington State Patrol to somehow put identifying information on people’s catalytic converters so they can be tracked, according to a legislative analysis.
That might not be too easy, according to Ernsdorff, who said he has seen transactions for a single catalytic converter go for up to $500.
“It’s a huge ask to have individuals bring their car into a shop for marking,” Ernsdorff said Tuesday. “I see impediments to the enforcement mechanism there.”
Ernsdorff was at the hearing, he said, to speak broadly about the thefts and what makes them so difficult to curb. Other than the ease and speed of the theft, criminal investigations can be long and costly, he said, and require that prosecutors prove that the items were stolen.
“And like a lot of the dirty pawnshops I’ve investigated, the recyclers hide behind the front desk clerk, who’s low-paid, does the transactions,” he said. “Giving the owners, the people that make that profit, plausible deniability and a straw fall man.”