a man in kansas who bought a 1959 corvette has found himself litigating with the state in an attempt to keep them from destroying the car. the kafkaesque situation causes shivers for other car owners but also points to steps all buyers of classic cars need to follow.
this is a process i am quite familiar with. i had a client who bought a classic car from michigan that was seized by the state police in his home state when they found a vin discrepancy between the primary vin tag and a vin stamped on the firewall.
richard martinez bought the 1959 corvette from a dealer in indiana and sought to have it registered in kansas. during that process, the kansas highway patrol found a discrepancy: the vin tag on the door post did not match a vin stamped on the frame. various news reports mention the vin being found in a "secret" location but those locations aren’t as secret as they were before the internet came along. corvettes from 1959 had the vin stamped into the frame at least once, though it can be hard to locate the stamping 60 years later.
the khp told martinez that the car was going to be seized under kansas law, due to the vin issue. kansas law 8-116(b) prohibits "knowingly" owning or having custody or possession of a motor vehicle if the "original vehicle identification number has been destroyed, removed, altered or defaced." the statute orders law enforcement officers to "seize and take possession" of such vehicles and the vehicles are treated as "contraband." generally speaking, the law says, "articles of contraband shall be destroyed."
martinez hired an attorney and it’s been reported that he has already spent $30,000 on legal fees. he also notes that the car has been damaged while in storage–if he wins this case and gets the car returned to him, he will spend almost another $30,000 getting it repaired–in the matter of a car that cost him $50,000 to begin with.
what is making headlines in this case is that the state of kansas has made no allegation of wrongdoing on the part of martinez. he appears to be "innocent" in this matter–it is the car that is in the wrong.
martinez has noted that the statutes of kansas allow for the state to go another route on this matter. assuming that the corvette contains no stolen parts and is merely a mix-and-match special, the highway patrol could assign the car a new vin. the statute is vague on how exactly this happens. "if the highway patrol is satisfied that the vehicle contains no stolen parts . . . the highway patrol shall determine the make, model and year of the vehicle, and shall assign" the vehicle a vin that the state will accept as legal.
but how do you "satisfy" the highway patrol that the car contains no stolen parts? is that the job of the state police to prove, or for the owner of the car to disprove? and what does "satisfied" actually mean? legally, it is a pretty weird standard to be written into a law. as it stands, the highway patrol is saying they are not satisfied – but they admit they have no proof that anything on the car is actually stolen.
martinez is in a very tough position. the law exists for a good reason. if cars could easily be sold with bad vins, it would presumably make things easier for car thieves and other bad actors. but what about an innocent buyer like martinez? no one has yet come forward to claim the car, or parts of it. a lot of people are lining up on the side of martinez here, including the kansas justice institute, who pointed out that a similar case made it to the supreme court of illinois. there, an innocent buyer of a car with a bad vin got to keep the car when the court ruled the statute violated the due process rights of the car buyer.
of course, illinois law will not be binding on the courts of kansas.
i can tell you that in the case i handled, the stolen car was returned by the state police to its original owner—the one who had reported it stolen decades ago. we were forced to sue the selling dealer to get my client his money back, which we managed to do, although litigation always takes longer than we'd like.
we’ll have to wait to see what the courts in kansas do with the martinez corvette. in the meantime, if you are going to buy a classic car, you will want to take some cautionary steps. you can pay to have an expert inspect the vehicle for you and ask them to specifically check all the vin locations to make sure they match. or, you can google the model year and name thus: "1959 corvette vin locations" and watch how badly the internet keeps those locations "secret."
after all, martinez could win this case. but no one buys a classic car just so they can litigate its ownership for a few years before they can legally drive it.
steve lehto is a writer and attorney from michigan. he specializes in lemon law and frequently writes about cars and the law. his most recent books include preston tucker and his battle to build the car of tomorrow and dodge daytona and plymouth superbird: design, development, production and competition. he also has a youtube channel where he talks about these things.