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Athens man faces 36 charges under new catalytic converter law

By MADDISON BOOTH, Alabama Daily News

The Limestone County Sheriff’s Department may have made the first arrests for catalytic converter thefts since a new state law and increased penalties went into effect July 1.

Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a bill to increase criminal penalties for stealing the auto part made of metals such as platinum, palladium, or rhodium.

Last week, the Limestone County Sheriff’s Department said it had arrested a metal recycler under the new law.

Jimmy Lee Free Jr., 46, owner of L&C Convertors in Athens, Alabama, was charged with 36 counts of not having proper documentation for each converter in plain sight at his business, the sheriff’s department said.

The new law targeting people illegally buying and selling converters made each converter a separate charge, limited who can legally buy and sell them and increased the amount of documentation needed to prove the converter seller really owned it.

The first charge is a Class A misdemeanor, but every subsequent charge is a Class C felony. A Class C felony is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. 

In March, the National Insurance Crime Bureau said catalytic converter thefts increased 325% from 2019 to 2020. According to the Bureau’s analysis, as of December 2020, rhodium was valued at $14,500 per ounce, palladium at $2,336 per ounce, and platinum at $1,061 per ounce. They estimate buyers will pay $50 to $250 for one catalytic converter.

Rep. Paul Lee, R-Dothan, who sponsored the bill in the House, said the intent of the law was to “make sure that we didn’t hurt business but also kept it all above board.”

He said he and his colleagues worked together with the Scrap Recyclers Association of Alabama on the bill and the businesses doing illegal sales are usually categorized as secondary metal recyclers. 

“We have arrested six individuals, on a total of 131 charges related to the theft of catalytic converters, in the past 12 days,” Limestone Sheriff Joshua McLaughlin shared on the department’s Facebook page. “We will not tolerate catalytic converter crimes in Limestone County.” 

Sen. Donnie Chesteen, R-Geneva, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, called the new law “a great tool for law enforcement.”

“The law worked in this case, and I hope it will continue to,” he said. “Maybe (potential thieves) will have second thoughts about stealing.”

Steve Levetan of the Scrap Recyclers Association of Alabama said it appears the new law is being enforced as intended.

“The collaborative effort between the scrap recycling industry, the automobile dealers, state and local law enforcement, and the Alabama Legislature to address catalytic converter theft serves as a model for the nation,” Levetan said. “The recent arrests in Limestone County demonstrate that effective statutory tools, in the hands of a dedicated law enforcement agency, can and will lead to taking thieves and illegal buyers off the street.”

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