As we work with many car collectors, our firm has run across a lot of errors on titles and registrations. They run the gamut: incorrect VINs, incorrect models, incorrect model years, engine numbers shown as the chassis numbers, incorrect manufacturers and so on. Almost everything on the registration can be a product of a mistake. And just when you think you’ve seen them all, a new error surprises you. It’s a great idea to take a look at your ownership documents to see if anything is amiss. If errors pop up, correct them now while the pressure is off. In case you need some motivation, here is an actual Legal File that serves as an example of how seemingly minor documentation errors can lead to severe consequences. It is an admittedly extreme example, but it did actually happen.

Vintage fun

Robin and Beverly Bruins, sixtyish, had reached the point in their lives where they could express themselves a little. They decided to do that by buying a collector car and located a beautifully restored 1962 Chevrolet Impala, pale yellow with a cream white top. After buying the Impala, they added to the vintage feel by locating a restored 1962 license plate, and they used it to register the car in their home state of Washington as a collector car. Washington, like many other states, allows vintage-proper plates to be used on vintage collector cars. The Impala drove as good as it looked, so the Bruins decided to drive the car on their vacation to Nevada. They made it to Las Vegas without incident, but then all hell broke loose. A Nevada Highway Patrol officer spotted the Impala and thought the 1962 Washington plate looked unfamiliar. He wanted to run the plate but didn’t have a computer in his car, so he called it in to his dispatcher. She ran it through the Criminal Justice Information System and reported back that there was no record of the plate found. So he pulled the Bruins over and asked for their registration, license and insurance information.

Funny numbers

The Washington registration was “a little weird,” as the officer described it. The entry in the box for the license plate number showed “+793257.” The number on the license plate, KTZ 681, was shown in a box titled “Equipment Number.” The officer had no idea what an “equipment number” might be, so he had the dispatcher run the 793257 plate number, leaving out the “+” because their system could not handle special characters. That search identified an expired Washington registration for a 1995 vehicle. So the officer and dispatcher tried another tack. They ran the 12-character VIN through the National Crime Information Center database, but an error was made — the first digit was erroneously input as a “3” instead of a “2.” The incorrect VIN returned a report tying the car to a stolen 1963 Impala. However, the report stated that it was based upon a “partial VIN search,” and warned that the officer should “verify all data before taking further action on this response.” For whatever reason, the dispatcher did not relay any of that information to the officer, and instead sent a “felony warble tone” and called a channel code red, all of which the officer took to mean that the car was stolen.

Rough tactics

Believing the car to be stolen, the officer called for backup. When backup arrived, the officer used his patrol car’s loudspeaker to tell Bruin, “Driver! Remove your keys from the ignition and put them on the roof. Now!” Bruin complied, and the officer then ordered him to get out of the vehicle with his hands in the air. Bruin complied, and as he turned around, was stunned to be looking down the barrels of three weapons. Robin received conflicting demands from the officers, but he complied. He walked to the back of the car, removed his shirt as ordered and then dropped to his knees. He was then handcuffed and put in the back seat of one of the patrol cars. Meanwhile, Beverly was ordered to get out of the car and walk to the back of the car. She got out of the car but was unable to walk due to a broken leg. So she reached back into the Impala to get her crutch, which generated a lot of shouting and agitation from the officers. They relaxed when they saw the crutch, but they handcuffed her as well and put her in the back seat of another patrol car.

Interrogations and consultations

The officer explained to Robin that the VIN came back as a stolen vehicle, and asked Robin how he acquired the car. Robin explained that he bought it a few months earlier after responding to a Craigslist ad. The California seller, whom Robin named, had previously purchased the car from a friend in Arizona. The officer didn’t take that as very comforting, as his experience was that a lot of stolen stuff gets sold on Craigslist. Robin further explained that he bought the license plate from a private party and used it as the vintage plate for the car, as allowed in Washington. The officer explained the weird characteristics of the registration, which Robin could not understand or explain. All he could say is that this was what Washington DMV sent him. The officer seemed to believe Robin’s story, but he needed direction from his sergeant. The officer explained the situation, and that he had run criminal checks on both Bruins, which came back clean. We don’t know what was said, but after the consultation with the sergeant, the officer advised Robin that he was being arrested for possession of a stolen car. The officer explained that the car had been reported stolen, it had “fictitious” plates and registration, there was “just too much stuff” that “didn’t add up,” and being from another state, Robin was a flight risk. Robin was taken to jail. Beverly was allowed to remove her belongings from the Impala and a taxi was called to take her to a hotel. The Impala was towed off and impounded. The next morning, Beverly went to the Nevada Highway Patrol station and talked to the sergeant. By then, officers had determined that the dispatcher had incorrectly entered the wrong VIN, which caused the erroneous stolen car report. Officers gave Beverly the plate and registration, told her how to get the Impala back, and sent a fax to the jail requesting that Robin be released. It took more than 24 hours after his arrest, but Robin was once again a free man.

The lawsuit

This is no surprise, but the Bruins filed suit against everyone involved at Nevada Highway Patrol for violation of their civil rights under federal law. Their claims were essentially based upon a lack of probable cause for their detention and arrest — and inappropriate tactics used in their detention. The Nevada Highway Patrol asked the court to award them summary judgment on all claims. Summary judgment is granted when, even assuming that everything the plaintiffs have alleged is true, things don’t add up to a legitimate legal claim. The court found that probable cause for the detention and arrest did exist. Absolute accuracy is not required. The analysis looks to whether the officers on the ground understood the situation to be such that a crime may have been committed. The court cited cases that held that:
  • We look to the “facts known to the officer at the time of the arrest.”
  • “Police officers are entitled to rely upon the reasonable information relayed to them from a police dispatcher,”
  • And “a stolen vehicle report alone” is sufficient — even if later proven to be incorrect.
In this case, NHP officers were clearly acting on incorrect information, but they did not know it at the time. However, the court also ruled that there were factual questions about the propriety of the officers’ tactics. That is, if everything the Bruins claimed had occurred was assumed to be true, the officers’ tactics may have been inappropriate and violations of the Bruins’ civil rights. The court ordered the case to go to trial on those claims, so that a judge or jury could decide what actually happened — and if the Bruins were entitled to damages. The case has not yet gone to trial. Discovery has been completed and the parties are about ready for trial. The Bruins will likely ask the judge to reconsider his decision on the lack of probable cause before actual trial.

Check your paperwork

Again, this is an extreme example, and your faulty paperwork is probably not going to cause you to spend 24 hours in a Las Vegas jail. But other very practical problems can arise. Faulty ownership and registration documents can kill a sale, cause an auction company to refuse to accept your consignment, affect an insurance claim or prevent the export or import of your collector car. When those kinds of surprises pop up, you usually don’t have the time to correct the documentation. Take a close look at your ownership documents. If there are any errors, correct them now, when the pressure is off. ♦ JOHN DRANEAS is an attorney in Oregon. His comments are general in nature and are not intended to substitute for consultation with an attorney. He can be reached through

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