It’s getting harder to steal catalytic converters in Orange County as city leaders continue focusing efforts to curb the widespread theft.
City council members in Dana Point, Westminster and San Juan Capistrano joined the growing crowd of Orange County cities tackling the problem of catalytic converter theft this month, discussing new rules that require people prove they own a catalytic converter not attached to their car.
Local city council members say state legislators have failed to address the growing problem that people can hear the second they start their car, with the part being stolen, stripped and sold for the precious metals it’s made of.
Thousands of converters have been stolen across Orange County over the past three years, according to multiple city staff reports.
Thieves can get anywhere from $200-$1200 per converter, according to Mission Viejo and Irvine law enforcement officials.
The problem is also growing exponentially.
Councilman Anthony Kuo said catalytic converter theft is now the largest property crime facing the city, with a 541% spike from 2020 to 2021 in a letter to San Juan Capistrano Mayor Derek Reeve.
Dana Point City Councilman Michael Villar said he hears from at least one resident a month saying they got their converter stolen from right in front of their house, and that his mother’s was stolen last year.
“(She) turned on her car and her catalytic converter was gone, her car sounded like it was going to explode.” Villar said at a May meeting. “Not only is she on a fixed income, but she’s also without a car for a week trying to get this fixed.”
Under state laws, the only way police can intervene is if they witness the converter being stolen.
But new laws passed by some Orange County cities make it a crime to transport catalytic converters that aren’t attached to cars without proof of ownership.
However, there’s some concerns over how police departments will be able to enforce the new rules.
In Irvine’s adopted rules, there’s a line that states it’s unlawful to have a catalytic converter not attached to a vehicle without documentation, and that “it is not required to prove the catalytic converter was stolen to establish the possession is not a ‘lawful possession.’”
While the ordinance also maps out what can count as valid documentation, that clause stirred up some concern with San Juan Capistrano City Council members when they talked about implementing a similar ordinance of their own.
“It is not required to prove the catalytic converter was stolen,” said Councilman Sergio Farias. “That’s concerning.”
Mayor Derek Reeve said the issue would be discussed more when a potential ordinance came in front of the council.
Meanwhile, Dana Point and Westminster both adopted their own ordinances tackling the problem in the last two weeks, with Dana Point’s including the proof of ownership clause, while Westminster’s cut it out.
Dana Point City Council members did not discuss the proof of ownership clause at their meeting.
Both ordinances state that anyone caught could be punished with a fine of at least $1,000 per converter and imprisonment in a county jail for less than six months.
Mario Mainero, an Associate Dean of Chapman University’s Fowler Law School, said that ultimately the secondary language doesn’t matter.
“Imagine it’s a much more common law – it’s unlawful to drive a car without proof of possession of a valid driver’s license or it’s unlawful to drive a car without proof of insurance,” Mainero said in a Thursday interview with Voice of OC. “These laws look the same as that, and they’ve been drafted to follow that.”
“All that needs to be proven is that possession of the converter that’s not attached and two, a lack of proof of verification of ownership,” Mainero continued. “Saying you don’t have to prove it was stolen is irrelevant because the second element of the crime is merely possession without proof of lawful possession.”
While car owners are able to provide proof the converter is theirs through several ways, including signing it over to someone else to transport it, cities are trying to make it easier for car owners to etch a vehicle identification number, or VIN, on the converter so that if someone is caught with it, it can be traced back to the original owner.
Dana Point City Manager Michael Killebrew said city staff are looking at purchasing an etching machine that would let them offer it as a service to residents, and register the numbers so that if the converter was stolen it could be returned to the proper owner.
State Senator Tom Umberg (D-Santa Ana), whose district covers parts of Anaheim, Santa Ana and Garden Grove, has also proposed a bill that would require car manufacturers to print a VIN on each catalytic converter the same way they do with engines and other essential car parts.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.