A pallet of recovered stolen catalytic converters.
The San Jose City Council approved a policy making it a misdemeanor to possess a catalytic converter that is not attached to a vehicle without proper documentation. Photo courtesy of San Jose Police Department.

Reported thefts of catalytic converters are trending down in San Jose, and city officials are strengthening policies to ensure that thefts keep dropping.

The San Jose City Council last week unanimously approved a policy that makes it a misdemeanor to possess a catalytic converter that is not attached to a vehicle without proper documentation, punishable by up to six months in jail and $1,000 per violation. Mayor Matt Mahan and Councilmember Arjun Batra were absent.

Proper documentation includes the bill of sale for the converter or photos of the car that housed the converter. Body shops must provide documentation that the owner of the converter relinquished it.

Catalytic converters control vehicle emissions of harmful gasses from going into the environment. Thefts of those converters have surged nationwide in recent years because the precious metals in the converters — including platinum, rhodium and palladium — make them lucrative to steal and sell, garnering between $250 to $800 apiece.

San Jose Police Department officials said in 2023 the number of stolen catalytic converters dropped to 836 compared to 1,843 the year before. But the financial burdens on victims remain significant. Depending on insurance coverage, replacing a catalytic converter can range from $1,000 to $3,000.

“The cost of replacing a catalytic converter is beyond reasonable for any working-class person,” Councilmember Peter Ortiz said. “To that end, the goal of our policy is to send a clear message to thieves: if you steal from the working class, we will come down on you with the full force of the law.”

Thieves stole more than 240,000 catalytic converters across the country in 2022 — a 288% increase from 2021, according to the latest data by the National Insurance Crime Bureau. California was overrepresented, making up 37% of all catalytic converter thefts across the nation.

SJPD Lt. Brent McKim, who heads the financial crimes unit, said San Jose residents have spent approximately $4 million to replace stolen catalytic converters over the past three years.

“That doesn’t even account for the lost wages, when a family is without their vehicle for days or weeks while their car is in the shop,” McKinnon said. “This indiscriminate crime extends across virtually every neighborhood, impacting residents’ livelihoods. In the worst cases, victims have been physically harmed or killed attempting to stop the crime.”

Prior to this policy, SJPD could only arrest or fine someone if they were caught in the act of stealing a catalytic converter.

SJPD also created a program that would etch an ID number on residents’ catalytic converters for free so if someone tried to sell it it could be identified if found. However, the program failed to take off — rendering it ineffective. In 2022 and 2023, only 435 residents used the etching services, according to police.

In November, officers stopped a stolen vehicle containing 14 stolen catalytic converters — none of which were etched with an ID number, McKim said.

The fine for each undocumented catalytic converter is $1,000 for the first offense, $2,000 for second offense and $4,000 for third and subsequent offenses in a 12-month period.

“Though ​​we hope by this point, the thief would’ve gotten the message,” McKim said.

Contact Jana at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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