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When Your Used Car Makes You a Target for Cops

Buying a car and actually owning it in the eyes of the law are not the same thing. Some Americans are finding that out the hard way.

Markeisha Fowlkes needed a car so she could drive a bus. 

The single mother of two worked as a bus driver in Los Angeles but lived in Long Beach, California, and the 25-mile, one-way commute—which didn't even include getting her children to school—made a vehicle of her own a necessity.

So in 2015, Fowlkes saved up enough to purchase a Dodge Charger from a small independent seller, Ace Auto Dealership. As is common at car dealers across America, Fowlkes drove off the lot without registration while the dealer arranged the transfer of ownership with the state DMV. But three weeks later, Ace Auto asked that Fowlkes return the car, claiming it couldn't find a third-party lender. Because Ace Auto refused to return her $2,000 downpayment, Fowlkes declined to turn over the vehicle, instead making her pre-arranged payments. But her permanent registration and license plates never arrived. 

In California, new car owners have 90 days to obtain permanent license plates. After that was when Fowlkes began to attract attention from law enforcement. "They thought the car was stolen," she told me. "I got pulled over so many times, my kids would see a cop and say, 'We're going to get pulled over!'" She took to keeping the dealer sale paper in her glove compartment and would have to sweet talk the police out of ticketing her. 

Once, the father of Fowlkes's children was stopped while driving the car, and he had an outstanding warrant, landing him in jail, she said. After yet another stop, police impounded the car. "I went to the police department, but I only had the bill of sale," she told me, explaining how she could not get the car released without documents proving ownership. She had to walk six miles home from Seal Beach that day.

If nothing else, though, the impounding did help Fowlkes find out why Ace Autos would always deflect her questions: An officer told her that the car had over $5,000 in unpaid parking tickets, which the dealer would have to pay off to secure title or ownership. By never forwarding Fowlkes's information to the DMV, the dealer saved money but also turned Markeisha Fowlkes into a target for cops.

"I got myself into something I never wanted," she told me.

Fowlkes's situation is more common than you might expect. Across America, used car dealers sell unregistered vehicles to unsuspecting consumers and then never supply them with legit papers. Drivers have been handcuffed, searched, detained, and essentially terrorized for buying a car from the wrong dealer. 

The situation adds another layer to the struggles of the working class in the United States. Without access to reliable public transportation, and without the money to buy new vehicles that sell for well over $30,000 on average, millions opt for used car lots. But in addition to scams like "buy here pay here" deals and subprime auto financing, used car buyers like Markeisha Fowlkes must contend with the risk of being criminalized for a legal purchase.

Consumers have few places to turn for help. Auto dealers are typically pillars of their local communities, sources of millions of dollars in campaign donations and lobbying. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the best bet for consumers at the federal level, is actually barred from scrutinizing auto dealers, because the industry secured an exemption from oversight in 2010. Consumer lawsuits are rare, because like with many other financial contracts, standard used car deals include mandatory arbitration agreements that force dispute resolution out of court. (And Donald Trump used arbitration widely in his own business dealings, so don't expect that to change under the new administration.)

"Car dealers are notoriously influential at every level," said Rosemary Shahan, president of Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, an advocacy group.

That leaves people like Markeisha Fowlkes, who lack the political power of the auto dealer industry, to take their chances with shady cars. Some have no other way to get around and can't afford to put their cars up on blocks for months while trying to straighten things out. And although finance companies cannot legally collect payment without title, and can be held responsible for wrongful acts by the dealer, attorneys say lenders often demand money from buyers by threatening their credit ratings.

"I have to suck it up," Fowlkes said. "I can't stop my life because they didn't do what they were supposed to do." 

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The used car business varies from state to state, with a process that includes applications, dealer exams, criminal background checks, and even a surety bond (a promise by a third party to pay claims if the dealer cannot). But bond requirements can be as low as $10,000 in states like Michigan, not enough to cover more than a couple of rip-offs. And the weeding out of bad actors depends on stringent enforcement, which is often lacking.  "In some places, you need only a few hours to complete a course with the DMV," said Alicia Hinton, an attorney in Fresno, California, who represents clients who got screwed by dealers.

And the business is loaded with opportunity for schemes of all kinds.  

"Any time a vehicle is sold and the title is not present, it opens up the opportunity for fraud," added Richard Diklitch, an expert witness in auto fraud cases. While some states, like Virginia, require that dealers issue certificates transferring title before cars leave the lots, many others don't

Typically, used car dealers acquire their vehicles from private sellers in a trade-in, rental car companies, or auto auctions, and they often try to find ways around having to formally procure title before sale. If they waited the approximately 20 days auction houses allow to transfer title from the seller, or the 60 days most state DMVs get to process paperwork, they would be stuck with dead inventory on their lots. 

Smaller mom-and-pop dealers are more likely to drag things out, some advocates say. Unlike their larger counterparts, many small dealers don't have an in-house staffer to handle paperwork, or can't afford to spend the day waiting in line at the DMV. In other cases, it's a simple cash flow problem. "Many of these dealers are financing a car at a time," said Hinton. "They don't have the money to pay DMV fees." 

This lack of administrative muscle becomes more important when transactions get messy. Sometimes there are outstanding liens on the vehicle, like traffic tickets or registration fees or an insurance claim from an accident. Sometimes a customer traded in the car with negative equity, with more owed on the car than it's worth. Dealers may not have the funds—or, you know, the desire—to pay off those obligations. Sometimes the car is registered out of state, making the paperwork more time consuming. And then there are dealers that just want to make sure the buyer turns in their initial payments on the transaction before making it official.

Any of these scenarios can slow down the transfer of ownership—and increase the chances an unsuspecting buyer will get targeted by the law.

After temporary registrations expire, drivers are left at the mercy of police. "You become susceptible to be interrogated, or if the officer wanted, arrested," said Diklitch. "Unfortunately, the consumer doesn't have a good choice. They don't have options other than walking."

Steven Simons, an attorney in Woodland Hills, California, told me that more than one of his clients has been pulled over, searched, and detained because of an unregistered vehicle. He described one case where the same buyer got pulled over four times in a month before learning that the dealer never turned in the paperwork. "One guy lost his license because he could not afford to pay all the tickets," Simons said.

Taras Rudnitsky, a lawyer from Longwood, Florida, recalled a client who was sold the same car by two dealers; one took the down payment, and another arranged financing. The only problem was that neither actually owned the car. The vehicle had been repossessed with an outstanding lien, and that financing company went out of business after delivering the car. The woman who bought the thing kept it unused in her driveway for years. "She's got a hunk of metal that she can't sell," Rudnitsky said. "As a practical matter, nobody owns it."

Illustration by Nicole Xu

Drivers have few options to get out of a mess like this other than badgering dealers. "There's nothing a consumer can do to make the dealer give them the title," said Bob Eppes, a former official with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "You can scream and holler all you want." 

Not only are drivers susceptible to being pulled over, the lack of registration can make it harder to acquire insurance. Or as Dani Liblang, an attorney from Birmingham, Michigan, put it, "It's a menace to everyone else on the highway as well."

One of Liblang's clients was injured in a rear-end accident with a vehicle that had no valid title. Under state law, the original dealer retained ownership, meaning the buyer had to sue to get the claim satisfied. In cases where the car is uninsured, the chance of receiving payment is remote because of the low $10,000 surety bond requirement in Michigan. 

Perhaps worst of all, according to consumer attorneys and advocates, many small dealers cater to minority communities with middling financial literacy. Arlyn Escalante, a lawyer in San Diego, has a number of clients who purchased vehicles from small dealerships that target Spanish speakers. "They're completely friendly at first, and when the client goes back to complain, they change," Escalante said. "They say 'I know about your [immigration] status.' To make people scared."

Attorney Alicia Hinton alleges that some dealers outright defraud customers. "A very common scenario: The dealer has title and transfers it to the lender, but makes sure the registration tags come to the dealership, not the buyer. So the buyer comes down, and the dealer asks for more money [in order to give up the tags]." Hinton says she's heard of dealers charging anywhere from $60 to $600 to get the car street legal after the initial purchase.

State DMVs and their investigative units can be the first line of defense against this abuse. And some states, like Florida, do a decent job of hounding dealers to turn in paperwork, according to attorney Rudnitsky. But most state DMVs have large case backlogs, and even true-blue California seems more interested in catching unregistered vehicles than helping drivers out of a registration nightmare: Recent legislation enables the state Highway Patrol to scan license tags and impound any expired vehicle. This could essentially become a total loss, since drivers cannot regain possession of their cars without establishing ownership.

Smaller dealers can also evade responsibility by closing up shop, leaving angry customers in the lurch. Sometimes the dealers start back up weeks later under a relative's name. "I have this fancy, ugly list of dealers in town," Hinton said. "Who they are, who owns them, who they pop up as the next time. It's a sad state of affairs that I have to keep track."

Because so many small dealers go in and out of business, it was hard to get an explanation for the litany of angry allegations leveled by people I spoke to for this article. Many of the dealers mentioned here appear to no longer operate—or at least not under the same business name. A spokesman for the National Independent Automobile Dealers Association did not respond to a request for comment.

"I would get pulled over, hassled by the police, because the car was registered to a Hispanic male. I'm clearly not Eduardo."—Mayesha Charlton

Mayesha Charlton, a medical assistant with two kids, never got registration on a car she purchased in 2012. At the time, she lived in Santa Paula, California, a small mountain town. "There's no bus service, no taxi," she said. "If you are not mobile, you don't leave that town." With her job in Ventura a 25-minute drive away, Charlton had to keep using her car even as she waited for the tags to, one day maybe come through.

"I would get pulled over, hassled by the police, because the car was registered to a Hispanic male," Charlton, who is African American, said. "I'm clearly not Eduardo." 

After the first offense, Charlton got a "fix-it" ticket for $500, and the dealer, Cars Yes of Reseda, not only failed to take care of it, "they denied I ever purchased the car." The paperwork on the sale was filled out under Magic Auto, a dealer that's now defunct, even though the car was purchased at Cars Yes (on the site of a former Magic Auto lot) and the paper plates on the vehicle bore the Cars Yes name.

Eventually, Charlton's employer garnished the $500 from her wages, after the state demanded the debt payment. She visited attorney Steven Simons, and after a protracted legal battle received a jury verdict, later paid in full.  When asked about this, an employee from Cars Yes denied that Charlton ever bought a car from them, saying "I don't have any records of that lady." An attempt to reach the owner was unsuccessful.

After Charlton purchased another used car from a larger dealership, it, too, waited months to deliver registration, during which time she got two more fix-it tickets. (After we initially spoke, Charlton eventually got that registration—six months after the initial purchase.)

As I was first discussing this saga with her over the phone, I could hear sirens in the background. Charlton was driving and got pulled over in the middle of our conversation. Her mother, also in the car, admonished her to be respectful, alluding to the shooting death of Philando Castile in Minnesota after a traffic stop. This was the "Talk" in real time.

Which is to say sketchy dealers flaking on registration isn't just a hassle for drivers—it puts them at risk for unpredictable encounters with law enforcement, during a tense time in police and community relations. "If you're black, Hispanic, the chances are much greater than when you get pulled over, the car is searched or impounded," said Hinton, the attorney.

"Is the vehicle registered in your name, ma'am?" I heard the officer ask Charlton near the end of our conversation.

"It should be," she replied. "This is the whole problem!" 

This story was published with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.

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