Scrap metal dealers face charges in first Mobile prosecution under catalytic converter law

Scrap metal dealers face charges in first Mobile prosecution under catalytic converter law

MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – Two Georgia men will plead guilty next month to allegations they illegally bought catalytic converters in the first local use of a new law designed to stamp out the black market for the devices.

Mobile police arrested Denis Ferhatovic, 28, of Auburn, Georgia, and Jasar Music, 40, of Hoschton, Georgia, last month and charged them with 14 counts each of possessing catalytic converters without proper paperwork. They also each face a separate felony charge alleging they violated rules that apply to the secondary metals market.

The prosecution comes after the Alabama legislature passed a new law earlier this year regulating catalytic converters, devices that remove some of the pollutants emitted by motor vehicle tailpipes. This law came into effect in June.

“The purpose of it is to try to address the epidemic of catalytic converter thefts,” Mobile County Assistant District Attorney Clay Rossi said.

A decade ago, a law sponsored by Mobile County Circuit Judge Ben Brooks — then a state senator — required a catalytic converter seller to provide a signed statement confirming rightful ownership of the device. The new law added additional requirements, including paperwork detailing the make and model of the vehicle from which the catalytic converter was removed and the vehicle identification number.

The statute also requires a copy of the certificate of title or registration certificate showing the seller’s ownership interest in the vehicle.

“There is extensive documentation required by statute to try to stop the illegal possession and theft of catalytic converters,” said Rossi, chief of the white-collar crime division of the District Attorney’s office.

James Byrd, an attorney representing both defendants, said his clients are involved in a legitimate scrap metal business in Georgia that is licensed, bonded and insured. He said they got a cold call from a man in Mobile County offering to sell catalytic converters. Based on the fact that the seller has not been charged in connection with the case — and the man’s extensive criminal record — Byrd said he believes the seller worked with law enforcement to frame his clients.

“My clients tended to buy scrap metal, but they didn’t tend to commit crimes,” he said. “They thought they were doing it legitimately.”

Few dispute that theft of catalytic converters has become more common, fueled by high prices for metals contained in the devices. A theft can cost car owners hundreds of dollars each time.

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, claims for theft of catalytic converters soared from 1,298 in 2018 to 14,433 nationwide in 2020. Experts say this is likely only a fraction of the total number of thefts.

The price of rhodium, one of the metals in catalytic converters, has fallen somewhat, but it is still fetching $12,400 an ounce. Prices also remain high for palladium and platinum, metals currently trading at $1,630 and $989 per ounce respectively.

Byrd said the man who sold the catalytic converters to his customers arranged a meeting in a field. This violates the law, which requires such a transaction to take place at a place of business. He said that this and other provisions of the law trip up his clients, but he added that they believe they are following the law.

“They got a signed receipt, signed by the person who sold them, and a picture of his driver’s license and a picture of him and everything else,” he said. “They got all the records they thought they needed, but not enough records under the new Alabama law.”

The accused will have a preliminary hearing next month. One issue will be whether the case will be tried as a felony or misdemeanor. The law makes the crime a felony or a felony for a “second or subsequent offense with a period of 10 years.”

Byrd argues a single transaction covering multiple catalytic converters cannot be considered more than one violation, though Rossi points to the plain language of the statute that says otherwise. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals may ultimately decide that issue.

Rossi said prosecutors hope the Legislature clears up that issue.

“The statute is definitely an improvement over the previous statute,” he said. “However, we would like to see the legislature go even further and immediately make illegal possession a felony.”

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