Catalytic converter thefts in Minnesota surge as local, state officials seek tougher penalties

Internationally, closed mines and refineries during the pandemic have contributed to major supply-chain shortages, increasing demand for rhodium, palladium and other precious metals found in the converters, which are designed to reduce vehicle exhaust emissions.

Internationally, closed mines and refineries during the pandemic have contributed to major supply-chain shortages, increasing demand for rhodium, palladium and other precious metals found in the converters, which are designed to reduce vehicle exhaust emissions.
Star Tribune / FNS file photo

ST. PAUL -- On its website, Metro Metals Recycling of St. Paul and Minneapolis isn’t shy about advertising that it will buy catalytic converters from sellers eager to cash in. In fact, lead buyer Brian Arthur specializes in them.

At a time when rising catalytic converter thefts from parked vehicles have drawn national attention, Arthur has become a defender of sorts for an industry drawing increased scrutiny.

For more than a year, St. Paul has limited purchases and sales of catalytic converters to auto garages and licensed dealers, but if there’s one thing Arthur and his industry’s critics can agree upon, it’s that the rules have barely made a dent. Not a single case has been charged in St. Paul since the law took effect in mid-2020.

“It’s not really putting a stop to any of the crime,” Arthur said. “It’s affecting everyone else’s business.”

Armed with nothing more than a string of expletives, Stephanie Harr recently scared away a trio of would-be catalytic converter thieves who had dipped under her neighbor’s RV, which was parked near the alley of her Mounds Park home around noon on the day after Thanksgiving. Even after she began yelling, one of the men ran back from their get-away car to get his tools.


“It was so brazen,” said Harr. “It was just so right out in the open. I felt so bad for my neighbors. I’m sure it’s a big expensive thing to fix. Everybody knows someone who has had their catalytic converter stolen.”

‘We didn’t get very far’

St. Paul police Senior Cmdr. Kurt Hallstrom said his officers have stopped drivers transporting two or more catalytic converters in their back seat, as well as car jacks and cutting equipment, but they’ve still been unable to prove theft and charge a crime.

“If we can’t specifically tie that catalytic converter back to the vehicle in which it was stolen from, we can’t prove beyond doubt that it was in fact stolen,” said Hallstrom, addressing the St. Paul City Council during a recent meeting. “We’re essentially letting that person go. We worked with a state legislator this past session (on potential statewide regulations). We didn’t get very far.”

The frustration voiced by Arthur, Harr and Hallstrom is being felt on both sides of the Mississippi River. City officials in St. Paul are asking state lawmakers to come together on the issue as skeptics question whether city-driven efforts to stop converter thieves have done much more than send sellers over to Wisconsin or onto Facebook Marketplace to engage in person-to-person sales.

In May, thieves stole some two-dozen converters from Rochester, Minn., school buses.

Thieves make a quick buck

To protect converters, “right now, we do nothing,” said state Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, who has pushed a legislative bill designed to curtail thefts by requiring proof of ownership and creating new criminal charges for unlawful possession, without success. “I’ve asked for a hearing for three years running. I’ve not gotten a hearing. My goal is we don’t leave this session without doing something.”

Internationally, closed mines and refineries during the pandemic have contributed to major supply-chain shortages, increasing demand for rhodium, palladium and other precious metals found in the converters, which are designed to reduce vehicle exhaust emissions.

These catalytic converters were sold to a scrap business in Carroll County in Ohio.
Lori Steineck / The Canton Repository / TNS

While thieves make a quick buck, victims of catalytic converter thefts are left footing replacement costs that can run from $1,500 to $3,000. The thefts haven’t galvanized police and lawmakers like carjackings and crimes of violence, but they do have a disproportionate impact on low- to moderate-income drivers — and they’re mounting.


Hallstrom said with the intent of making them less attractive to thieves, St. Paul police spray-painted some 1,600 converters orange, yellow and blue last year for grateful car owners, but “1,600 is nothing.” Thefts still increased.

Scrapyard offers up to $1,100

At Metro Metals, tow truck drivers bring Arthur catalytic converters from junked vehicles perhaps 10 times per day. Arthur said he demands evidence of a title, a bill of sale or auction records.

A couple of years ago, he flipped over a converter to find a “U-Haul” stamp. A call to St. Paul police didn’t result in the seller’s arrest. Instead, authorities said that without a theft report, it would be too difficult to link the man to a crime.

Some scrapyards have been even more aggressive than Metro Metals in soliciting catalytic converters. In Houlton, Wis., just across the St. Croix River from Stillwater, King Core and Metals Recycling posts to its Facebook page “converter buy lists” with more than 100 different offer prices, ranging from $68 to more than $1,100, depending upon the vehicle brand and converter style.

A four-chamber (or “four biscuit”) catalytic converter from a Ford car, for instance, could net more than $1,000, while a low-grade “hot dog” converter from a Honda might bring a seller $90, according to the scrapyard’s January buy list. A call to King Core was not returned.

New ordinances, questionable impact

St. Paul attempted to crack down on catalytic converter thefts in May 2020 with a new city ordinance that made sales or purchases of detached converters by unlicensed dealers a criminal misdemeanor-level offense.

The new law has yet to be invoked by city prosecutors.

“We have not been presented any cases for charging from law enforcement,” said St. Paul City Attorney Lyndsey Olson.


Rather than stop illicit sales, St. Paul police report that converter thefts in 2021 continued at record numbers, with 1,855 thefts of catalytic converters as of mid-December, or more than five thefts per day. That’s up five-fold from the 345 reported thefts in 2019.

Despite the new ordinance, pulling over a driver with a detached converter in plain view rarely results in arrest. Police have said that without a crime report linking the converter to a specific car, suspects avoid charges by claiming they’re transporting property for a friend or family member. On Jan. 19, the St. Paul City Council is likely to approve an amendment that would seek to address that shortcoming by making possession of a detached catalytic converter without a sales receipt or some other proof of ownership a misdemeanor.

“A lot of our business is tow truck drivers and auto shops,” Arthur said. “(A proof of ownership requirement) would really affect their livelihood, because a lot of tow drivers, that’s all they do is junk cars. They’ve got cars sitting in their lot for years and they don’t have the title. They’re just going to go across the border to Wisconsin — New Richmond or Prescott — to sell them.”

Few expect a dramatic decline in thefts, at least not overnight. St. Paul City Council President Amy Brendmoen was scheduled to meet with representatives of Gov. Tim Walz’s office this month to discuss potential statewide legislation.

Marty, the state senator, said his bill has received support from the International Association of Auto Theft Investigators, but it hasn’t advanced in Senate committees. He’s hoping that will change.

Proof of ownership

Marty, who worked closely with the Minnesota Department of Commerce on his approach, said his proposed legislation would require proof of ownership before any sale, purchase or transport of a detached converter statewide, and purchases would be restricted to licensed dealers.

“If you have in your possession a used catalytic converter that is not attached to a car, it would be a crime,” Marty said. “You would no longer need to prove theft. The crime of unlawful possession is clear. It is easy to enforce.”

Car owners who choose to remove converters from their own vehicles could show evidence of ownership simply by marking the piece with a vehicle identification number, or VIN, which most thieves are unlikely to take the time to do. Possession of a single unmarked converter would be a misdemeanor, two converters would be a gross misdemeanor and three or more would likely constitute a felony.


In addition, under Marty’s proposal, scrap dealers would have to hold onto newly-purchased converters for a week, and payments would have to be held for five days before being transmitted to the seller’s bank account or mailed out. The goal there is to leave a paper trail for police to follow in the event a theft is reported.

“I was pretty excited,” said Hallstrom, the police commander, who expected lawmakers to embrace Marty’s proposal. “I spoke to the Legislature a couple times last spring, and I was pretty shocked.”

‘The gist of the problem’

Instead of hearing Marty’s bill, lawmakers approved a $400,000 pilot program to help vehicle owners in high-target neighborhoods mark their converters with non-removable stickers and barcodes linked to their VIN number for easy identification.

“The state law did very little,” Marty said. “That’s only going to label a tiny fraction of a percent of them. It’s worth doing, but it’s not really the gist of the problem.”

Abu Nayeem, a Frogtown neighborhood advocate and data analyst, organized a community forum on converter thefts in early 2021. Without a statewide approach, he said, he was pessimistic much would change.

“After the ordinance was passed by the city council, it did pretty much nothing,” said Nayeem, after looking at St. Paul police data on reported converter thefts. “It had no discernible impact. They had good intentions. But thieves can leave the city and sell the converters elsewhere. Police can only arrest someone if they’re caught red-handed in the act of stealing. If you want them to be charged, you call the police and hope they arrive while they’re still in action.”

In other words, said Nayeem, “you have to sacrifice your catalytic converter.”

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