For the past couple of years in Arizona, stealing a catalytic converter — that shiny, tubular emission control device in a vehicle's exhaust pipe — has been like taking candy from a baby.
Experienced thieves can detach these metallic devices from a car in less than two minutes. What’s worse, catalytic converters often lack a serial number or any other identifiers that can be traced back to a victim or a specific car.
So, when they’re stolen in broad daylight in the driveways of homes across the Valley, convictions are rarely achieved without a thorough eyewitness account of the crime.
Even then, it’s sometimes not enough for prosecutors to meet the burden of proof and convince a jury to convict a suspect.
But a new law passed in the Arizona State Legislature and signed quickly by Governor Doug Ducey last week looks to seal loopholes that have made catalytic converters easy to steal and sell, in what he called a “crime epidemic” in Arizona.
Slowing Down the Hustlers
In the Grand Canyon State, it’s “unlawful for a person to purchase or sell a used converter unless the purchase or sale is in the ordinary course of business by a commercial motor vehicle parts or repair business in connection with the sale or installation of a new catalytic converter."
And yet it’s happening more than ever.
That’s why the Arizona House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly in favor of the new bill on May 9 with just three representatives voting against it.
It contains numerous provisions to help law enforcement keep tabs on stolen converters as they move through the black market.
Because its authors included an emergency clause, House Bill 2652 went into effect immediately after Ducey signed it hours later.
“The governor signed this because he knows it’s a good policy,” the governor’s spokesperson, C.J. Karamargin, told Phoenix New Times on Monday. “It is a timely issue that needs to be addressed.”
Under the new law, every person who buys an aftermarket catalytic converter is required to submit a record of the sale to the Arizona Department of Public Safety along with a report of any unique identifying markings or numbers on the device.
Anyone else who solicits, advertises, or possesses used converters can be fined up to $4,000. Law enforcement has more power to investigate scrap metal businesses and online listings under the new code.
"This bill will give law enforcement enhanced tools and resources to stop the theft of catalytic converters and catch the thieves committing this heinous crime,” said State Representative Diego Espinoza, a Democrat from Tolleson who sponsored the new legislation.
Lawmakers hope the new regulations will stifle the unprecedented 6,500 percent surge in catalytic converter theft in Phoenix in 2021, first reported by New Times in March.
Mesa also saw an 814 percent increase last year. Nearby, Gilbert suffered a 975 percent spike and Chandler topped the East Valley with an increase of more than 1,800 percent in cases involving jacked converters, up from 22 cases in 2020 to over 400 last year.
Buckeye, Goodyear, Peoria, Surprise, and Tempe also underwent significant hikes in the number of cases in 2021.
Late last summer, catalytic converter thefts were on pace to more than quadruple in the U.S., with Arizona seeing the greatest spike in thefts of any state, according to Irvine, California-based automotive research company Kelley Blue Book.
Espinoza shuddered at that fact and took it upon himself to curb the state’s property crime problem.
"Thousands of Arizonans have been victims of this crime and it is only getting worse,” Espinoza said. “The cost to repair and replace a catalytic converter and related vehicle damages can be huge.”
More Precious Than Gold
Stolen converters can cost up to around $5,000 to replace.
The stolen converters get "de-canned," meaning the ceramic honeycomb inside is plucked out and sent to a clandestine smelter, where the rare minerals are extracted, distilled, and resold.
After pawning the precious metals, the hulls end up in a scrapyard, where they can be sold again for up to $1,500.
More catalytic converters are stolen in Arizona than in 41 other states, according to a March report from State Farm Insurance, the largest American auto insurer.
According to the insurance company, there has been a 12,771 percent increase in the number of claims it paid out in Arizona over the past three years.
State Farm paid less than $10,000 for just seven such cases in 2019 but doled out more than $1.4 million last year for 901 claims in Arizona.
Catalytic converters turn toxic pollutants into exhaust gas filtering out emissions. Arizona law has required a working catalytic converter on most commuter cars since the Vehicle Emissions Inspection Program launched in 1976.
Driving without a catalytic converter isn’t just bad for the environment. It also produces a deafening cacophony of rumbling and grinding.
Cop in the Chop Shop
Under Arizona’s new law, criminals will have a more difficult time moving stolen converters through the black market.
Used car parts wholesalers around the Valley are already turning people away who can’t come up with the necessary documents that prove the sale is legit.
Russell Smith, who owns three Performance Muffler stores in Phoenix, Glendale, and Peoria, told New Times, “We repair stolen converters all the time. We document everything as well as mark the converter when they turn it in. At that point, it becomes a scrap part and we can sell it.”
Since early 2021, Smith has helped at his West Valley shops an average of six customers per week who are victims of catalytic converter thefts.
At his Phoenix location, he’s now averaging eight per week.
“The thieves are migrating around the Valley,” he said.
While he’s grateful for the business, Smith is glad elected officials are taking action to stamp out auto theft.
According to Phoenix Police Sergeant Philip Krynsky, the department already has received a staggering 1,636 reports of stolen catalytic converters this year in Phoenix alone. That's one out of every 1,000 city residents victimized in just over four months.
The department received 323 reports of stolen converters last month, and 159 more since May 1.
HB 2652 “gives law enforcement the tools they need to go out and do their job and makes sure we're apprehending the bad actors," Espinoza said during a Senate hearing earlier this year.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office could prosecute more thieves with more police apprehensions. For the thousands of stolen converters, county attorneys have only ever prosecuted 16 such cases.
In nearly all of those cases, defendants had prior arrests or convictions.
This month, for example, 29-year-old Erik Hernandez was sentenced to more than seven years in prison after being indicted on a number of charges connected to stolen catalytic converters in Phoenix, Chandler, Mesa, Tempe, and Scottsdale.
He pleaded guilty to third-degree burglary and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after cops found an AR-15, a handgun, and a pair of freshly severed converters in his car.
Investigators said he has "substantial involvement in the valley's catalytic converter theft epidemic” and a lengthy criminal record.
“Catalytic converter thefts are occurring in various areas throughout the Valley and at all hours throughout the day,” Krynsky said. “We are asking the community to contact us whenever they have information leading to offenders that commit these types of crimes.”
Under the new law, scrap metal dealers are mandated to register for a free website that allows cops to send alerts on stolen items within a 100-mile radius of the theft.
The sergeant recommends Valley residents back their vehicles into parking spots in well-lit and open areas and near a camera whenever possible.
Arizona Helps Lead the Way
A March report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau found that 35 states were mulling either enacting new legislation or firming up existing legislation to help curb the theft of these devices.
According to Denver-based legislative data clearinghouse BillTrack50, Alabama was the first state to begin requiring car parts dealers to produce records of legal purchases this year, amending its criminal code in early March.
Similar laws already existed in Arkansas, South Carolina, and Texas.
Washington state followed not long after with a law deterring catalytic converter theft that also “declares an emergency” in the state as it relates to this crime.
Arizona became the 11th state to enact such a law amid a nationwide flurry of legislative action in April and May. More than two dozen other state legislatures are still considering similar action.
Since Ducey signed Arizona’s law last week, two more states — Colorado and Connecticut — have also joined the list.
Georgia, Maryland, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and West Virginia voted against legislation that would require scrap metal buyers to retain sales records.
No More Victim Blaming
For too long, the onus of property crime prevention has fallen on the victim, at least when it comes to catalytic converters, says longtime Phoenix resident Stacey Autote.
On May 2, Autote survived a scrape with a group of thieves in the driveway of her home near Roosevelt Street and 59th Avenue in the Maryvale neighborhood.
Her car was fully elevated on a car jack when a concerned neighbor chased the crooks away.
At least she got a free jack out of the whole ordeal, she joked.
Autote follows the news. She knew catalytic converters were getting picked off in her neighborhood, but never imagined she would be the next victim.
“This has been a serious, raging problem for a while,” Autote told New Times. “This is happening everywhere and, until now, it’s been all on us to stop it.”
When she first heard about the property crime epidemic a few months ago, she was advised to etch her VIN number into the shell of the device and purchase a $500 cage that makes it more difficult to remove.
That wasn’t ideal for the disabled widow who sometimes struggles to pay the bills.
Days later, a friend of Autote’s daughter who lives a few blocks down the road became the next victim. Thieves did so much damage to her car trying to remove the converter that they totaled it.
“It took our politicians a long time to finally step up and do something,” the 53-year-old mother said. “But I’m so glad they’re trying to fix this.”
State officials have not noticed any obvious shifts in property crime trends in the law’s first week in effect, but expect to later.
Any motorist can be a victim of this crime.
"I know two people within a two-block radius in two different households that have had their catalytic converters stolen,” said State Senator Lisa Otondo, a Democrat from Yuma who voted in favor of the new law. “This problem is huge."