PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — As the number of catalytic converter thefts in Rhode Island rises sharply, the state lawmaker who sponsored a new law to crack down on the market for the stolen car parts wants to improve the legislation.
A Target 12 investigation that aired Monday found the thefts are skyrocketing in Rhode Island, from just eight thefts in 2017 to 1,466 and counting this year.
State Rep. Joseph Solomon, D-Warwick, sponsored a bill earlier this year that passed in June, requiring scrap metal dealers to to collect a series of documents from a person selling them a catalytic converter.
In part, the business has to collect a photocopy of the seller’s photo ID and a copy of the registration or the VIN number from the vehicle the converter came from.
“Unfortunately, people are continuing to steal catalytic converters, and we need to show that they will not have an outlet to sell them,” Solomon said in an interview with Target 12.
The new law is being enforced by local police departments and the attorney general’s office, which licenses precious metal dealers.
Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha, said no businesses have been penalized thus far under the new statute.
“To date we have found no evidence that any salvage yard businesses have not complied with the requirements of the new statute,” Hodge said. “However, we are monitoring the situation closely, and if that changes, we will take the appropriate action.”
Hodge added that the AG’s office is upgrading its computer system to receive the newly-required information from businesses.
Providence passed a similar city ordinance in April, which requires businesses to collect a longer list of documents from the seller of the converter, including a bill of sale for the converter.
Like the state law, no businesses have been cited under the new city ordinance thus far, though one business has received a warning from the licensing bureau.
Providence has had 542 reported catalytic converter thefts this year as of Sept. 30, according to police data.
After Target 12 inquired about the enforcement of the new law, Providence police said copies of the new ordinance would be distributed to roughly 70 businesses in the city this month.
“We will be checking,” said Providence Police Capt. Timothy O’Hara. “It hopefully breaks the flow of the money between the thieves and the scrap metal yards.”
Solomon said he plans to introduce updated legislation in the next session of the General Assembly to increase enforcement of the law.
“It absolutely should be tightened,” Solomon said. “If we have to increase the penalties, we’ll absolutely increase the penalties and make it criminal for these businesses to accept what they should think is stolen property.”
Solomon said he also would consider requiring annual reports on the enforcement of the statute.
Police say it’s difficult to arrest the people carrying out the thefts. The catalytic converters can be stolen from underneath cars in a matter of seconds, making it unlikely that thieves will be caught in the act.
The thefts are often caught on camera, but the suspects cover their faces, and the vehicles they use could be stolen or unregistered, O’Hara said.
Solomon says arresting the thieves isn’t enough to stop the problem, pointing to the case of William Hazard, a Warwick man who has been convicted of larceny multiple times and was captured once again in September for allegedly stealing catalytic converters from Walser Mobile Refrigeration. The owner of the Warwick business tracked Hazard down using an Apple AirTag.
Hazard allegedly told police after the arrest: “When I get out I’ll just go back over there, watch.”
“It’s not enough to just put someone in prison,” Solomon said. “We need to go after the people who are accepting the catalytic converters that they know are stolen.”
Other states have explored laws requiring car dealers to mark catalytic converters with identifying numbers, and there are also shields on the market that can make it more difficult for someone to cut the part out of an exhaust system.
As it stands, converters don’t have identification numbers matching them to an owner, making it nearly impossible for police to tie a suspected stolen converter to a reported crime.
Steph Machado (email@example.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.