Law and Disorder: Taken for a Ride
Hank Investigates: Law and Disorder: Taken for a Ride
Marianna Callahan arrives for her criminal hearing at the West Roxbury courthouse. She’s incredibly angry because she's not a criminal!
"I have to come to court, lose a days pay..."
Court room one, clerk's office, waiting… Downstairs, stand in line… more waiting. …and getting angrier and angrier..
"We were told to go downstairs…"
Fact is, Marianna didn't break any laws -- she just sold a car! But she's trapped in a state system that calls people like her guilty until they prove to a judge they're innocent.
"Oh, today has really been a nightmare."
Our investigation found if you sell your car or even donate it to charity, you could still be held responsible if the new owner breaks the law!
Example, four months after Marianna traded in her car police found it abandoned with illegal plates. When they ran the vehicle identification number, registry records showed Marianna as the last known owner! So she gets the summons to court.
"I really wouldn’t want it to happen to anybody else…"
But right now it could happen to anyone who sells a car. Unless the buyer files proper title paperwork, Massachusetts’s registry records will show the car still belongs to the seller. That means that if your old car is then abandoned or is even used in a crime -- it could come back to haunt you!
Hank Phillippi Ryan, Investigative Reporter
"So when this kind of thing happens, the seller becomes the victim."
Steven Sebestyen, MA Registry of Motor Vehicles
"The seller has to prove they no longer own the vehicle."
And because the registry does not keep track of car sales, officials admit they have no idea how often this happens.
"It’s really difficult to gauge."
But it happened to Siu-Ki Chan, he donated his car to charity. Two years later, when police towed it as abandoned, Siu-Ki was still on the title and he got the bills for towing and storage.
"I was really shocked."
It happened to Cheryl Dyer, a year after she sold this car police hauled it in for illegal plates. But Cheryl's name was still on the title.
Hank Phillippi Ryan
"What were you told?"
"It’s not our problem, you have to come to court."
And in this JP tow lot.
Bill Blinstrub knows he's constantly sending towing bills to people whom no longer own the cars.
Bill Blinstrub, Tow Lot Operator
"I think it’s ridiculous and the system needs to be changed."
In fact, we found this abandoned car in his lot still titled to Tom Arrington! He'd traded it months before, but now he's fighting thousands of dollars in towing storage and court fees.
"I thought I had just stepped into the twilight zone."
And it doesn't stop there. Now the car's on its way to Boston’s main tow lot and guess what, now you're going to pay for it. City officials say tax money pays for towing orphaned cars and tracking down the real owners through dealer and auction records. You're paying for storage, for postage, for demolition and disposal.
Jim Mansfield, City of Boston Transportation Dept.
"I think it’s troubling. I'd like to see a more efficient way of doing that."
In Minnesota and Texas they got so tired of the chaos, officials created a simple form for sellers to inform the state of the new owner. CA requires both the seller and the buyer to notify the state's registry of the transaction.
Steve Haskins, California DMV
"If the DMV is not clear as to who owns the vehicle, then you know it’s just bad news all the way down the line."
In Massachusetts though, there's no way for Tom or any other seller to clear their names from an old car title. Tom owns one car, his registry paperwork shows he owns two.
"What the heck happened? Why did the system fail! I mean there is something going wrong here."
But right now it's law and disorder: the guilty commit the crime, the innocent are called into court.
Hank Phillippi Ryan
"Why doesn't the registry change the system so this doesn't happen?"
"Right now everything the registry can do it is doing under the law."
So right now it’s up to you to protect yourself! If you sell or trade or give away your car keep all the documentation! That's the only proof the car is now someone else's responsibility.