PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As thefts of catalytic converters continue to plague the region, a Rhode Island state lawmaker has introduced legislation to tighten restrictions on scrap metal businesses that buy converters.
The new bill, proposed by state Rep. Joe Solomon, would add to the regulations placed on businesses last year, aiming to further crack down on the market to buy stolen converters.
“We’ve given these businesses the opportunity to do the right thing,” Solomon said an interview Friday. “It doesn’t appear that’s been happening, so for this reason we’re making it tougher and they need more accountability.”
The car parts, which contain valuable precious metals, cost thousands of dollars for vehicle owners to replace. Target 12 reported last fall more than 1,400 converter thefts were reported in the first three-quarters of 2022 alone, according to police departments across Rhode Island.
Solomon’s previous legislation, which became law in June of 2022, required businesses to collect certain documentation from people selling catalytic converters, such as the VIN or registration from the vehicle the converter came from, along with their photo ID and signature.
The goal was to create a paper trail and discourage businesses from buying stolen converters. But the legislation contained an exemption for business-to-business transactions, and was less strict than a related Providence city ordinance that requires further proof of ownership of the converter.
The attorney general’s office, which licenses precious metal dealers, has not taken action against any businesses under the 9-month-old law, according to a spokesperson.
Solomon’s newly proposed bill would add a requirement that sellers provide a bill of sale proving ownership, and would remove the business-to-business exception. It would also require businesses to purchase converters using a check, rather than cash, increasing the paper trail.
Thieves can steal catalytic converters in a matter of minutes and often immediately sell them for cash at scrap yards, which police say makes it difficult to catch them.
The new legislation, which was heard by the House Committee on Corporations on Friday afternoon, also increases the penalties for violating the law, and would require the attorney general to suspend the license of any business in violation.
Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said the AG’s office is still reviewing the bill. Neronha did not submit testimony on the bill for Friday’s hearing.
Hodge said BCI investigators regularly visit businesses to ensure compliance with existing law.
Solomon said he decided to strengthen the legislation in part due to Target 12’s reporting. He also referenced a recent FBI raid at a Providence scrap metal business, Accurate Converter.
12 News captured video of FBI agents removing catalytic converters from the business in February. Asked for an update on Friday, a FBI spokesperson said the investigation into the business remains very active. The feds have not provided any details yet on what specifically they are investigating, and the business declined to comment last month.
Accurate Converter previously received a warning from the city, Target 12 reported last year, after purchasing a stolen converter, according to police. The vehicle part had been tracked to Accurate Converter by the owners of a Warwick business, who put Apple AirTags in their converters after getting fed up by constant thefts.
“It’s a heavy-handed approach,” Solomon, the chair of the Corporations Committee, acknowledged at Friday’s hearing. “But I think the time is now to do that.”
He argued businesses are ignoring red flags that would indicate a seller is bring them a stolen catalytic converters.
But businesses have expressed concern about the new legislation. Bill Farrell, a lobbyist representing Rebuilders Automotive Supply in Coventry, testified Friday in opposition to the requirement that the attorney general yank the business license of any violators of the law.
“We think it’s draconian to say you’re out of business,” Farrell argued, referencing a business making a “mistake” compared to repeated violations.
He expressed support for the various record-keeping requirements of the law and said the business has no problem ditching cash, but argued business-to-business transactions should remain exempt.
The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, which represents scrap businesses in Rhode Island, submitted written testimony in opposition. The group asked for the business-to-business exemption to be maintained, arguing businesses like repair shops would not have copies of the bill of sale for a legally-obtained catalytic converter.
The bill “would remove a provision that is key to conducting business-to-business transactions
and create a bill of sale requirement that most sellers will be unable to comply with, encouraging the black market in converters to flourish without any records for law enforcement to use in combating thefts,” wrote Danielle Waterfield, the chief policy officer for the trade group.
Rep. Brian Patrick Kennedy, a member of the committee, said he sympathizes with businesses to an extent, but his sympathy only goes far considering the rise in crimes. He referenced a recent spate of converter thefts from a facility for people with disabilities in Westerly, and read statistics from last year’s Target 12 report.
“Until we come up with a method, whether it’s painting on a serial number or getting the automobile manufacturers to do something more proactive … then we’re going to have these petty thieves coming in and trying to profit big time,” Kennedy said.
Car insurance companies submitted testimony in favor of the bill, pointing to the high cost of replacing the stolen parts.
Solomon also introduced a separate bill that would create an interstate compact to regulate converter sales. The bill would “set licensing and reporting requirements for each sale or purchase of converters,” and create a system for states who join to share information.
“Catalytic converter theft isn’t just a Rhode Island issue, it’s a nationwide issue,” Solomon said. “So if we can solve it on a regional basis, I think we’re going in the right direction.”