I never got a bill of sale when I sold my car, and now I'm screwed. What can I do?
April 2, 2011 8:56 PM   Subscribe

I need some armchair legal advice about a messy situation involving a car I sold 2 years ago coming back to haunt me. I never got a bill of sale when I sold the car- now it's in police custody, and I'm liable for fees and possibly implicated in whatever this car's been into.

TL,DNR: Never got a bill of sale when I sold my car 2 years ago. Last week the car shows up in police custody with all kinds of fees attached to it and I am liable for them, being the last registered owner. I can't prove I sold the car. I want to scrap it with a duplicate title I just got for it, but I'm afraid that the other guy will show up with his title after I do that- or worse, that I might end up implicated in any criminal charges associated with the car. What can I do?

LONG VERSION: Two years ago, I bought a new car at a dealership. I was haggling with them over the amount that I would get for my old car as a trade in- it was basically worthless, but I wanted something and the dealership wouldn't budge. My salesman finally said, "Here, let's take a look at it. Come with me." We drove it to the parking lot next door, where there was someone waiting for us. "This is my brother. He'll buy the car for $200." I accepted the offer, took the $200 in cash, signed the title over to him, and he took the car. I didn't get a bill of sale. I transfered my plates to my new car, registered it, and went about my business.

Last week, I got a letter from the Hartford Connecticut police department telling me that "my" old car was in police custody. It had been towed to a local auto body shop where it was being stored. I was responsible for any charges incurred- towing, ongoing storage, abandoned car penalty. The person I'd sold it to hadn't registered or insured the car.

I called my salesman at the dealership twice. The first time, he said he would try to get in touch with his brother. I recieved a call not long after from some OTHER guy, apparently a friend of the guy I sold the car to. HE told me he would also try to get in touch with the guy I sold the car to. Neither of them could give me the contact info of the guy- they claimed they didn't have it.

According to the police station, the auto body shop, and the DMV, I am indeed responsible for the fees attached to the car- it's legally still my car. There's apparently no way that I can prove otherwise. Everything was under the table at the dealership, there was no bill of sale, and I was the last registered owner.
The next day, I called my salesman again. This time he denied any responsibility and hung up on me.

Having no doubt now that I'm dealing with scumbags, I visted the police station again and informed them of the situation. They were generally unhelpful and told me it was something I had to straighten out myself, but I did obtain the police report from the towing. The guy driving the car wasn't the guy I'd sold the car to. It said that he was pulled over because the car was unregistered. He didn't have a license and there were false plates on the car. He was arrested and had already had a court hearing.

I visisted the auto body shop. At this point I'd love to just pay the fees and scrap this car- but they of course need the title in order to do anything with it. I don't have it- the other guy does. The police report gave me his phone number and address. I called his phone multiple times. No answer. He finally texted "Who is this?" I explained that it was the previous owner of the car, and that all I wanted to know was what he wanted to do with it. If he wanted it, he could have it- just pay the fees. If he didn't want it, I would scrap it, and we'd get on with our lives. However unlikely, I didn't want him to show up with his title afterwords and be angry because I scrapped his car. He texted back denying being the person in question, saying he'd never heard of that person. I said alright and never texted again.

Still having every legal right to the car, I ordered a duplicate title from the DMV. It came in the mail today. There is a note on this title saying "This is a duplicate certificate and may be subject to the rights of a person under the original certificate." That worries me a bit.

Here's my plan- check with the police and the DMV before going to the auto body shop with this duplicate title and scrapping this car. I want to make sure I have every legal right to scrap this car, and that I'm not going to end up in court because this guy is pissed that I scrapped his car.

The much, much likelier case is that this guy wants only to disappear and leave the car and the fees and this whole mess to me. This is also worrying, because if there are any other crimes associated with this car, I may be liable. This car could have been used to transport drugs or do drivebys for all I know. If any of that were to be the case, I would probably be implicated, being the legal owner of the vehicle.

As it stands, I've spoken at length to the Hartford PD, the DMV, and the auto body shop storing the car. I've made every attempt to get into contact with the person who was driving the car to try and sort it out- I even knocked on his door (against my better judgement). I've taken notes of who I've talked to and when, and what they've told me. My plan at this point is, like I said, to check with the police and the DMV again and inform them of my intentions to scrap the car, and then go to the auto body shop and scrap the car. I plan to get all KINDS of written proof of everything at the auto body shop when I pay the fees and arrange for them to scrap the car. Then I intend to inform the DMV and the police that I scrapped it. Then I intend to get on with my life. Lesson learned the hard way- always always get a bill of sale, and send it to the DMV the next day. This was my first time selling a car, and I wasn't aware of this process or its importance.

Is there anything else I'm overlooking? What can I do to as much as possible absolve myself of anything to do with this car and this situation?
posted by inweaknessbe to Law & Government (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Call your insurance agent. You must have notified them of the sale, in order to cancel your insurance. That might not be the perfect proof, but it is a start.
posted by Flood at 9:15 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

My guess is that if someone showed up to claim the car, you would be entitled to be reimbursed for all the fees that you are paying as the official legal owner. In other words, if they want to say that they have been the owner for the past 2 years, then those fees would be their responsibility.
posted by metahawk at 9:26 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Selling a car by signing the title over to someone is not "under the table". Even if you had a bill of sale, it probably wouldn't help because even if you sold the car and had proof you sold the car, the buyer never registered it, so you weren't married in the eyes of the church. Er, or something like that.

I'd talk to a lawyer about this. There are probably lots of implications here you have not even considered.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:31 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Yeah I don't know about Connecticut, but where I've lived, signing the title over is what legally conveys the property. Here in Oklahoma, you can pay a small fee and file a form with the state claiming you sold the car, but it's not actually good for anything so nobody does it.

It might be wise in the future to write a bill of sale and keep a signed copy.

In the end, they have to prove you didn't sell the car if they want to collect the fees, unless there's a legal requirement to file a form with the state when you sell a car.
posted by wierdo at 11:48 PM on April 2, 2011

I'm curious about how anyone can put this on you when you follow the physical story of the automobile in question. Just trace it backwards:
  • the car is currently at a local autobody shop
  • it was towed there by the Hartford police by a towing company
  • the towing company was called by the police because the vehicle was being operated illegally…
  • …by someone not the owner.
So who is the guy in the car? The implication is that there is a direct line of property from you to whomever this random dude is that you clearly don't know. Where did he get the car? Seems to me if you just keep working backwards you have to eventually end up with you. But the police are making an assumption that I don't think they have the right to make. How did this individual find themselves in your automobile in the first place?
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:53 AM on April 3, 2011

I'd be contacting a lawyer at this point. If you pay the fees, that might constitute aknowledgment that the car has belonged to you for the last 2 years, which in turn might put you on the hook for crimes committed using the car, pot that's stashed in the trunk, etc. Don't take another shortcut.
posted by jon1270 at 3:42 AM on April 3, 2011

First question.... how much are we talking about?

If not much, pay it and go do something worthwhile. (Might be a good idea to go forth, sinner, and be ye not so silly again!)

If much, how much is your time worth? It will take a while to resolve this successfully, and you have a rough idea of what constitutes success. This could take the form of minimizing the outflow you are anticipating or eliminating it.

This is a business deal gone bad. If it's in small claims court territory, and you are a) in the right, and b) sophisticated enough to prevail, and c) willing to lose, then that might be a route to success. Some folks cave when presented with a small claims action, regardless of its merits. Do you meet these tests? There's a possibility that something called 'agency' is involved, and if you really want to get persnickety, sue the dealership, too. THEY have insurance, and they probably have better things to do than defend themselves from a nuisance.

What really is going on here is that your adversary(ies) have (probably rightly) judged you as a mark and are avoiding you expecting you will go away (probably right, again.) They aren't so much scumbags as perhaps you are careless. This is what happens when you are learning how to do things better. It may hurt, but it will teach.
posted by FauxScot at 3:50 AM on April 3, 2011

Please talk to a lawyer. The police aren't on your side, they have their own agenda (I don't mean this in a negative way, just... it's not their job to help you prove you sold the car). The car's owner isn't on your side, either. You need someone who can ask the right questions, get the right details, and make sure the situation is resolved for you. I wouldn't have the expertise to do that for myself, and it sounds like you don't, either.
posted by Meg_Murry at 7:05 AM on April 3, 2011

I too would contact a lawyer. You probably have a good case to be made that transferring the plates and transferring your insurance to a new car shows that you sold the car.

This is unfortunately a hole in the car title transfer system. The rules assume that the buyer of the car will want the title in their name and have it transferred post-haste. When that doesn't happen, drama ensues. I've always thought that titles ought to be two or three part forms, where the seller keeps a copy to show that they did give up ownership of the car.

What you really shouldn't do is anything that re-establishes ownership of the car, as that will dilute your claim that you sold it.
posted by gjc at 7:27 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

Not an answer, but to give you some context: I had a car stolen, once. I reported the theft to the police. Months later it showed up in some storage place in a small town another state and I was "liable for the storage fees." I paid them, but noted the following:
1) The police waited a few days before contacting me, which I assume was because they routinely did this so the storage place would make a few extra bucks.
2) The police ceased to be involved after so notifying me, so that it was now mainly the storage place wanting their fees before they released the car. I imagined that if I didn't pay, they wouldn't pursue me but just sell the car or use it for parts.

In other words, if you just ignore this problem, it might go away by itself.
posted by Obscure Reference at 7:46 AM on April 3, 2011

TINLA, but a relative of mine had a car they had sold (and apparently properly transferred title) later used in some drug-related crime and the "owner of record" turned out to still be my relative. Paperwork gets misfiled. People make typos. Criminals do fraudy things. And according to the sighing, long-suffering cops at the time, this isn't even that unusual a situation; car registration is a PITA. They eventually tracked down the right guy.

You should probably talk to a lawyer. Although I'm kind-of liking Obscure Reference's idea of just ignoring it and saying, repeatedly, "Not my car, not my problem."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:14 AM on April 3, 2011

I agree with it's not your car or your problem. The "body shop" that has it impounded it for the police. If the owner does not claim it they can/will receive title to it & do with it as they please. IANAL but I know people that own towing company's & that's how it works. You don't owe anyone anything. IMHO.
posted by patnok at 11:56 AM on April 3, 2011

According to the police station, the auto body shop, and the DMV, I am indeed responsible for the fees attached to the car- it's legally still my car.

None of those parties have the knowledge or authority to establish the legal ownership of the car. They just want someone to take responsibility so that they can cross this off of their to-do lists. You, as the upstanding person with something to lose, look to them like a good bet.

Lawyer up. It's not your car, and your lack of a piece of paper reading "bill of sale" doesn't necessarily make it your car.
posted by desuetude at 1:20 PM on April 3, 2011

I had totally forgotten about it, but once upon a time the police came to my parents door because something they had arrested with a big trunk full of cocaine (or some such - it's not like they got a copy of the arrest report) had bought a used car from them and...wait for it...never registered it. My dad said, "Hey, I sold it about a year ago - not mine!" and as far as I know, never heard about it again.

And the more I think about this, the more I think that if there is a title out there with a signed buyer and seller box, and you claim ownership of the car, I think you might actually be stealing a car.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 3:02 PM on April 3, 2011

I can't help you with your ownership problem but I will advise you to contact the dealership where the original salesperson worked (hopefully still works there!) and let his management know the kind of underhanded stuff their employee is pulling. Clear this with your lawyer of course but if it was my employee, I'd want to know. Then again, I've never worked in car sales so who knows what they'll think.

I'd also consider going to your local consumer reporter (TV or newspaper) and seeing if a little publicity won't help the situation - again, after consulting a lawyer. You're already on the hook for the money but this the kind of situation the normal trusting citizen finds themselves in so there's that angle.

(for the record, I sold a car through my brother last year & a month later, I got a letter for the DMV that my old car was no longer insured & the registration was suspended. This letter was sent because my brother hadn't turned in the old tags yet.

My question would be: If you transferred the tags to your new vehicle, has the old vehicle been tagless for the last two years? If it had tags, where did they come from? If it didn't have tags, why didn't the MV dept notify you? Something seems to be missing here & a good lawyer could probably get it straightened out.
posted by jaimystery at 4:29 PM on April 3, 2011

Thanks everyone for your replies. No new developments yet. The consistent advice has been to talk to a lawyer, and that's my plan. Hopefully the lawyer can show me a way that I can avoid any responsibility for this car whatsoever- or at least cover all the bases in scrapping the car. I'll post a follow up for anyone interested about how all of this plays out. Thanks again!
posted by inweaknessbe at 5:18 AM on April 4, 2011

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