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March 21, 2023
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(AUSTIN) — Possession of an unattached catalytic converter would be a crime under a bill approved by the Senate Criminal Justice Committee Tuesday. Thefts of the emissions-controlling auto parts are increasing as thieves seek the precious rare earth metals inside the converters. In Houston, for example, the number of converter thefts went from just over 300 in 2019 to almost 8,000 in 2021. It takes just two or three minutes for a thief to slide under a car and cut the converter off of the exhaust pipe, and it happens to vehicles parked in front of houses in residential areas and even in parking lots of shopping centers.

TSN photo

Houston Senator Carol Alvarado says law enforcement needs more tools to go after people who steal catalytic converters.

When leaded gas was banned in the mid 1970s, car manufacturers began installing catalytic converters on new vehicles in order to comply with emissions standards. These devices convert carbon monoxide and unburned fuel elements into water and carbon dioxide, but they require parts coated in rhodium, palladium, and platinum, which are some of the most precious metals on Earth. Each converter contains only a few grams of each, but a single gram of platinum can exceed $30 in value and the value of one gram of rhodium approaches $300 on the commodities market.

Law enforcement officials testified that unless they catch offenders in the act, it is very difficult to prosecute these crimes. Harris County Deputy Fred Persons has been working for the last three years at the department's Metal Theft Unit. "It's a nightmare," he said. "We know who most of our crooks are. We know who our cutters are, we know who the buyers are. We have no teeth, we have no way to go get them unless we catch them or they cross state lines and we get the Feds involved." In his time on the unit, he said there have been more than 10,000 victims and $25 million worth of metals stolen as street gangs have gotten involved in what is becoming an increasingly violent crime. "All of these guys are violent, all of them carry guns," said Persons.

In March of last year, this violence took the life of Harris County Deputy Darren Almendarez, who was shot by thieves as he confronted them off-duty in a grocery store parking lot while they stole the converter off of his personal vehicle. The bill will be named in his honor. "These are vicious thieves," said Houston Senator and committee chair John Whitmire. "They will take any measure to get these valuable minerals." He said his own son-in-law and grandsons were victimized in the time it took them to eat lunch at a restaurant in central Houston. "I fear if they'd have been ten minutes earlier, there would have been a confrontation," said Whitmire.

SB 224 combines bills from Houston Senators Carol Alvarado and Paul Bettencourt and Galveston Senator Mayes Middleton into a comprehensive plan to give law enforcement the flexibility needed to arrest those who steal, sell, and buy catalytic converters illegally. Under the bill, a person who is in possession of one or more converters is presumed to have stolen them unless he or she can prove otherwise. "The thrust of the legislation is if you've got it, the presumption is that you're a thief, because you shouldn't have more than one - you shouldn't even have one that's not operating on your vehicle," said Whitmire. Theft of converters would be a state jail felony, which comes with a sentence of up to two years in prison. It would allow prosecutors to enhance penalties by one level of offense if the defendant was in possession of a firearm while committing the crime. The bill seeks to prevent the sale of these items from one business to another by requiring strict record keeping on legitimate transactions involving catalytic converters. Approved unanimously by the committee, it now heads to the full Senate for consideration.

The Senate will reconvene Wednesday, March 22 at 11 a.m.

Session video and all other Senate webcast recordings can be accessed from the Senate website's Audio/Video Archive.