New Minnesota law takes aim at catalytic converter thieves. Will it be enough?

To crack down on catalytic converter thieves, Minnesota will launch an anti-theft program and impose new regulations on scrap buyers.

Under a new state law, Minnesota will spend $400,000 over the next two years on paint and engraving tools, sending the materials to the highest-theft areas. The law also requires all buyers to follow regulations that currently govern scrap metal dealers -- with an additional requirement to track anti-theft markings on any catalytic converter they buy.

But the changes are less than what auto theft investigators and some lawmakers wanted at the start of the 2021 session: to make it a crime simply to have a catalytic converter that's not your own.

Catalytic converters are among the most expensive auto parts as metal prices have soared in recent years. Found on the underside of cars, they're easy for thieves to cut out. And resale is easy, because the converters have only generic marks that make theft investigators' work hard.

"It’s a big investigative process to tie the catalytic converter currently from where it came from – almost impossible," said St. Paul Police Senior Commander Kurt Hallstrom. He said officers occasionally find vehicles with jacks, reciprocal saws and catalytic converters inside, but "unless we can prove they’re out there doing this, it’s not illegal to drive around with saws and jacks in your car."

In the Twin Cities Metro, theft has soared. Minneapolis reported 931 catalytic converter thefts through July 26, a 36 percent year-over-year increase. St. Paul has reported 1,109 thefts this year, more than in all of 2020.

Minnesota's new anti-theft program is loosely based on events that St. Paul and other Metro cities have held this year to spray paint and etch identifying marks into catalytic converters at no cost to vehicle owners.

One such event in St. Louis Park this month was so popular that vehicle owners filled every appointment slot within minutes.

"I don't want it stolen -- and if it is stolen, I want the perpetrators to get in trouble," said Joan Ackermann, who brought her vehicle in.

"Honestly, it's sad that we have to do something like this," said Mary Windsor, who was marking her daughter's car because it sits outside at night. "I don't remember ever having to deal with this."

St. Paul has marked 1,500 cars, but it's not a panacea, Hallstrom cautioned.

"It was an idea that we’ve got to try to do something," he said. "It’s certainly not a guarantee. We have had a couple catalytic converters that we did in fact mark that have been stolen now."

Minnesota Commerce Department officials said they would seek feedback from law enforcement, auto dealers, scrap metal dealers, auto repair shops and others before launching the program. This could take weeks or months, a spokesman said.

"Feedback from those in the community, those in industry and law enforcement – all across the state - will be essential to the success of this pilot program," said Mo Schriner, the Commerce spokesman.

The International Association of Auto Theft Investigators and some Minnesota lawmakers initially sought to make possession of one catalytic converter a misdemeanor, two or three a gross misdemeanor, and four or more a felony. But that provision did not become law.

Hallstrom gave several suggestions to vehicle owners:

• Park inside when possible
• When parking outside, park in a well-lit area
• Park the passenger side against a curb, making it more difficult for thieves to access the underside of the vehicle
• Install home security cameras or buy aftermarket products that wrap around the catalytic converter