On Tuesday morning, Jan. 25, 2022, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office testified on how Senate Bill 5495 can be strengthened to curb the demand for catalytic converters that are illegally stolen and then sold throughout Washington State.

Informed by years of experience investigating catalytic converter thefts in our region, Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Gary Ernsdorff urged the Senate Law and Justice Committee to consider technical changes to the bill that aim to shrink the marketplace for stolen catalytic converters.

“I’d like to discuss thoughtful regulation. Dry up the demand for stolen catalytic converters and you dry up the thefts overnight.” said Ernsdorff. “I encourage you to act swiftly and surely. A delay to next year’s legislative session only means that thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Washingtonians will be victimized during the delay.”

Ernsdoff laid out a plan for that thoughtful regulation, including: required recordkeeping and inspection, funded enforcement, and sure and swift penalties for recyclers who are not in compliance. This plan would decrease demand for illegal catalytic converters and allow law abiding recyclers to continue conducting their legal and profitable businesses.

Here’s video of Ernsdoff’s testimony:

And the transcript:

Good morning, thank you Chair Dhingra and the sponsors of Senate Bill 5495, particularly Senator Wilson who invited me here this morning to discuss this legislation.

My name is Gary Ernsdorff. I’m a Senior Prosecutor with the King County Prosecutor’s Office; I was before this committed a couple of weeks ago. I supervise our Special Operations Unit, and for the last year I’ve been deeply involved in investigating catalytic converter thefts.

Senator Wilson invited me here today, not so much support to the exact language of SB 5495, but to provide my view of things and perhaps a regulatory scheme that might provide some assistance.

What we have is a perfect setting for catalytic converter thievery. It’s helpful to view that setting from both a supply and demand side.

On the supply side, we have low level criminal actors who commit a very quick theft and they can net $500 for one catalytic converter. It’s a target rich environment, vehicles are all around us – there’s no entry required so car alarms are ineffective, so this is easy pickings. The only necessary tool is a common Sawzall and we’re seeing those shoplifted everyday big box stores.

Given COVID and other issues, many judges are unlikely to hold these low level offenders for a property crime, so an arrest really is just an inconvenience; they are back out on the street later that day or maybe the next day. And if a prosecution results under the current sentencing guidelines, sentencing can be a long time away with minimal sentences. So on the supply side, we have big return, and little risk. d

On the demand side, this is a big money business. Recyclers and middlemen make a lot of money off these transactions. Last year, I saw a buyer post a photo on Facebook of his brand new Lamborghini, bought with catalytic converter proceeds, and it was his second Lamborghini.

There’s almost no risk, these criminal investigations are time consuming, expensive, and its’ not to buy and sell catalytic converters. And like the dirty pawnshops I have investigated, the recyclers hide behind the front desk clerk, who is low paid, does the transactions and gives the owners – the people who make the profit – plausible deniability and a straw fall man.

Criminal investigations as I said are long and costly, and we have to prove that the recyclers knew the catalytic converters were stolen – and that’s difficult. There’s no dedicated funding of that I am aware, to drive a regulatory scheme at this time. Current regulations, and there are some, are clearly ineffective.

So on the supply side, big returns and currently little risk. So the question for you is: do we throw a lot of money at the supply side, incarcerating our way out of this problem, increasing the standard sentencing range, and increasing the burden on our criminal justice system, or do we do we attack the demand side with thoughtful regulation?

I’d like to discuss thoughtful regulation. Dry up the demand for stolen catalytic converters and you dry up the thefts overnight. My proposal:

    • Strict record keeping requirements, along with what Senator Wilson is proposing, including a photocopy of valid identification, multiple photographs of the catalytic converter in order to individualize it, information of the vehicle it came off of, whether or not they are the vehicle’s owner or reseller, and memorializing every other aspect of the transaction;
    • Mandatory permissive inspection by enforcement agency (perhaps the Washington State Patrol), but we have to require mandatory inspection of paperwork for anyone buying catalytic converters;
    • A significant fine, $2,000, and forfeiture of any catalytic converter not in compliance with the paperwork requirement;

And, so this is not an unfunded mandate, we need to take a significant portion of those fines and distribute them to enforcement agency so they have monetary backing to conduct these regulatory investigations.

That kind of regulatory scheme: required recordkeeping and inspection; funded enforcement; and sure and swift penalties, will dry up the demand for illegal cats, allow law abiding recyclers to have plenty of room to conduct their legal and profitable business.

I’d imagine there could be pushback from the industry. But law-abiding recyclers are already required to keep some records, and if you can afford a Lamborghini you can afford a couple more minutes onto a transaction that’s going to net you hundreds of dollars.

I encourage you to act swiftly and surely. A delay to next year’s legislative session only means that thousands, maybe tens of thousands of Washingtonians will be victimized during the delay. I’m happy to assist and answer your questions.

Scott Schaefer

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