California’s new temporary license tag law: for some car buyers, a nightmare on wheels

California car buyers face new headaches and hazards, thanks to a new law that took effect on January 1, 2019.  Some unlucky car buyers may end up losing their cars, and their jobs, or in prison — because someone else screwed up.

The new law requires car dealers to install temporary license tags that expire 90 days after consumers purchase a new or used car.

Until this year, dealers who sold cars without permanent plates taped a folded-up “report of sale” inside the back window, where the expiration date was difficult, or impossible, to read. The new temporary tags have prominent expiration dates and bar codes that make them easy for toll collectors, police, repossession companies, parking enforcement, and others to target, simply by scanning the tags with an inexpensive scanning tool.

In many other states, when you buy a car from a car dealer, the dealer must install permanent metal plates on your car before it leaves the lot. But in California, now dealers give you temporary tags, while you wait for the permanent plates to arrive.

Under California law, you must install the permanent plates as soon as you get them, or within that 90-day window. But here’s the catch:  if you don’t get the permanent plates on time, you can be pulled over by the police or Highway Patrol while you’re driving along and minding your own business, and ticketed for having expired tags — even if it’s not your fault.

You read that right. YOU are the one who suffers, even when it’s the car dealer, Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV), or “first line service provider” chosen by the car dealer who failed to send you the permanent plates on time.

After 90 days are up, you are suddenly subject to being pulled over and ticketed, or worse.  The penalties don’t fit the “crime,” especially since the license numbers on the temp tags are clearly visible for an extended period, and may be legible for many more months, making your car easy for law enforcement, toll collectors, or others to spot.

Temporary tags may cause tickets to skyrocket

What will happen in California, now that temporary tags make it ridiculously easy for police, repossession companies, and others to track cars and scan the tags, so they can target consumers stuck with expired tags?

Here’s what happened in a small village on Long Island, New York, when police started using scanners to track cars: “Since the scanners went live Nov. 2, they have been triggering an average of 700 alarms a day, mainly about cars on the road with expired or suspended registration stickers. Officers have impounded 500 vehicles. They’ve written more than 2,000 court summonses, mostly for minor violations.”

When that’s what happens in a small village, how many more car owners will be ticketed, lose their cars, or be hauled into court in California?  Fasten your seatbelts. We’re in for a rough ride.

In response to a recent Public Records Act request from Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, the California Highway Patrol provided data showing that from January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2018, the CHP impounded 54,442 vehicles. Those numbers are likely to skyrocket.  Plus police and parking enforcement in cities, towns, and rural areas will issue more tickets and add even more cars to the pool of impounded vehicles.

No warning

The DMV fails to have a system in place to warn consumers about the potentially serious consequences of having an expired temp tag, or to remind hapless car buyers when the deadline is near. In fact, DMV officials tout being pulled over on the freeway, with traffic zooming by, or on a remote, isolated rural road, as an appropriate, effective way to learn your temp tags have expired and you are entering the twisted Twilight Zone of attempting to deal with deadbeat dealers and the DMV.

Serious risks

For most motorists, at a minimum, traffic stops cause anxiety and delays. The tickets are also costly and can cause real hardship.  For some, they can be fatal. What starts out as a routine traffic stop may escalate and rapidly spiral out of control. Relatively trivial violations sometimes lead to violent death. Especially when drivers are African-American, Latino, or other persons of color, they face a higher degree of serious, potentially life-threatening risks. Remember Philando Castile? And Sandra Bland?  They lost their lives during traffic stops for minor violations. But California’s DMV and other state officials blithely dismiss concerns about the safety of motorists who are pulled over by police or the CHP just because they have expired tags.

A fix-it ticket you cannot fix

The DMV also scoffs at the notion that being ticketed can have devastating economic consequences.  According to the DMV, “The fine amount can differ depending in the county where a violation occurs. The fines range from $25 with proof of correction up to $197 without proof of correction.” That may not seem like much to a highly paid, high-level DMV executive, but for many families struggling to make ends meet, that can be a real hit.

As if that’s not bad enough, the DMV adds: “Drivers may receive multiple tickets if they delay making the correction.” Uh-oh.

For many car buyers, trying to get “proof of correction” from the DMV is an exercise in extreme frustration. A common scenario: a car dealer goes out of business without submitting the registration documents, leaving hundreds of consumers unable to get their permanent plates.  When that happens, it can take the DMV more than a year to sort things out.

Meanwhile, YOU are the one waiting in line at the DMV, pleading for help, and getting hit with tickets — over and over again, sometimes until your car is towed away and impounded. Then you get hit with hefty towing and impound fees. Catch 22: If you’re not the registered owner, even if you pay all the fees, you still cannot reclaim your car.

Bottom line: Those tickets can add up. Fast. Even if you are trying desperately to get things fixed. Get too many citations, and your car is impounded by the police or CHP.  For someone who needs their vehicle to keep their job, or take their disabled child for medical treatments, or get their kids to day care or school, losing a car because it was impounded can be a disaster.

Whose idea was this absurdly unjust system?

Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo) authored this anti-consumer legislation (AB 516) at the behest of toll companies, car dealers, “service providers” chosen by car dealers, and police agencies.

In 2013, toll companies complained to Mullin that they were losing millions of dollars in revenue when scofflaws driving newly purchased cars with car dealer tags on them blew through toll booths without paying the tolls.  The car dealer tags typically trumpet the name of the dealership — like “Toyota of XXX” — but provide no identifying number so that toll operators can locate the drivers and collect.

The toll collectors convinced Mullin to carry a bill to require temp tags, to stop the scofflaws and increase their revenues. But the first version of Mullin’s legislation, introduced in 2014, failed to pass, because it was opposed by the California New Car Dealers Association.

The dealers view tags that display their names as a terrific way to advertise. Temp tags could interfere with their unique way of getting their names in front of more eyeballs, on the roads and in driveways.

To appease the car dealers, the next year Mullin added an increase in the so-called “document fee” and other fees that car dealers and their “service providers” are allowed to charge consumers.  He also allowed the dealers to include the name of their dealership on the temporary tags, for advertising purposes.

The toll company / car dealer legislation was opposed by non-profit pro-consumer and civil rights groups, who sought reasonable protections for car buyers who cannot get their vehicles registered, or get their permanent plates, through no fault of their own. Those groups and attorneys who represent victims of abusive car dealer / DMV practices cited numerous examples of totally innocent consumers who have been pulled over and ticketed, even before the new law was on the books.

Some victims were also threatened with arrest, or actually handcuffed and arrested. Some had their cars towed away and impounded. Then the DMV refused to allow them to get their cars out of impound, even if they paid all the tickets and the hefty impound fees, because they weren’t the registered owners.  All because a car dealer, “service provider,” or the DMV messed up or deliberately stalled handing over their permanent plates.

New law threatens to harm low-income consumers and communities of color

One of the civil rights non-profits opposed to Assemblymember Mullin’s legislation, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, wrote:

“LCCR recently published, in collaboration with other groups, a report entitled Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, which shows the many ways that low-income California drivers, and particularly communities of color, are impacted by unfair laws that result in license suspensions and hefty fines, and that lead people into an endless cycle of debt and court involvement from which they cannot extricate themselves. Rather than reverse this trend, AB 516 would contribute to it.”

Read more:  Letter from Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area

Making matters worse: In California. car dealers are not required to provide car buyers their permanent plates within 90 days.  In fact, California’s DMV actually allows car dealers to have the plates sent to themselves, instead of the car buyers. This is an open invitation for dealers to cheat their customers.

Adding insult to injury: the car buyers pay the car dealer for the permanent plates and the registration when they buy the car. But they have no control over when their car is registered, or when they get their plates. They are at the mercy of the car dealers, the dealers’  “service providers,” and the DMV.  But it’s the car buyers who are penalized if the plates are late, or never arrive.  Obviously, this insane “Catch-22” system is rife for abuse.

Looking for help from the DMV? Good luck with that.

In response to complaints about abuses, DMV officials shrug and dismiss them, claiming that when a ticket is issued, it is merely a “fix-it” ticket.  But here’s the hitch: you cannot get it fixed.  Hapless car buyers have spent countless hours waiting in lines at the DMV, going back over and over again, pleading to have their registrations completed, only to be told:

  • “Sorry, there’s nothing the DMV can do.”
  • “Sorry, it’s under investigation and we have no idea how long that will take. It might take years.”
  • Sorry, before you can get the registration, and your plates, you need to post a bond.
  • “Sorry, there’s a problem with the registration, and you need to work it out with the dealer.”
  • “Sorry, someone needs to pay off a lien, that costs thousands of dollars, before the dealer can get the title and complete the registration.”
  • “Sorry, you need to pay off all the parking and speeding tickets — issued to the former owner — first.”
  • “Sorry, you need to pay the DMV for past registrations that were overdue, including the penalties.”

Temporary Operating Permits Scarce, Unpredictable

Occasionally, the DMV  doles out a “Temporary Operating Permit” to a consumer caught in this bind, but according to an official with the California State Transportation Agency, the DMV has no standards for deciding who gets a permit, or how long it lasts, leaving it up to the office manager’s “discretion.”  That lends itself to discrimination, based on whatever the manager’s biases may be.

However, before you can get a “Temporary Operating Permit,” the official wrote that “one requirement is that the registration fees have been paid”  — by the dealer. Good luck with that. That’s the deadbeat who ripped you off and went belly up without paying the fees to the DMV, or the arrogant characters in the gleaming palatial new car dealership who hang up on you whenever you call to inquire about when you can drive again without fear of being pulled over at gunpoint.

Why can’t you get your car registered, or get your permanent plates on time?

Common situations that lead to this nightmare scenario:

  • Glitches at the DMV, like entering the wrong Vehicle Identification Number, or losing track of the registration documentation.

 

  • Dealers who sell used vehicles without having the title, often because the former owner still owed money when he or she traded in their car. Their lender has a lien on the title, until the loan is paid in full. Until the dealer has a clear title, they may not be able to register the car.

 

  • Dealers who have the permanent license plates sent to them, instead of to the consumer.  The dealer refuses to send them the plates, and instead demands extra money  — holding the plates for ransom.

 

  • Dealers or “first line service providers” chosen by the dealer and approved by the DMV who fail to send the permanent plates on time, or send them to the wrong address

Dealers holding plates for ransom

Last year, a bus driver in Los Angeles  bought a used car from an independent used car lot.  As usual, she paid for the permanent plates and the registration. Without telling her, the dealer chose to have the permanent plates sent to the dealership, instead of to her. Over 90 days later, she was still waiting for her plates.  One day, the police pulled her over and handed her a so-called “fix-it” ticket. She explained the situation, but the officer was unsympathetic.

She called the dealership. The dealer said he had her permanent plates. But he refused to give her the plates, unless she paid nearly $300 extra for them. The dealer refused to put his demand in writing, or to accept a check or credit card. He told her to bring cash.

She was infuriated, and considered filing a lawsuit.  But her resistance wore down, after she was pulled over and ticketed again, and again. The tickets cost her hundreds of dollars.  But even worse — If she didn’t get the plates soon, she faced being arrested and having her car towed and impounded.  She finally paid the dealer nearly $300 more for permanent plates she had already paid for, when she bought the car.

Even Kansas has better laws against such practices

Consumers in other states, like Kansas, have better protections against car dealers who jerk consumers around and withhold car titles. For example, car dealers in Kansas are required to provide car buyers with title to their cars within 60 days. If the dealer fails to comply with the law, the transactions are void and consumers are entitled to a full refund.

Read more: Wichita car lot hit with $140,000 fine over business practices

Who opposed AB 516?

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety

Consumer Federation of California

California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney and Judge Pro-Tem Steven Simons

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney David Valdez

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Greg Babbitt

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Balam Latona

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area

Citizens United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)

Law firm of Kemnitzer, Barron & Krieg

Courage Campaign

News reports

News reports highlight car buyers’ nightmarish experiences with dealers who failed to complete their registrations, even though they had paid the dealers to handle the paperwork, and were dependent on them to do their jobs. Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety alerted the news media about these cases:

ABC Channel 10 (San Diego): U.S. Military Veteran faces ordeal because of car dealer who failed to register his car

ABC Channel 30 (Fresno): Clovis car dealer leaves hundreds in limbo

NBC Bay Area (San Jose): Dealer can’t register car, woman wants refund

Roger Lanctot in LinkedIn: Car dealers making yo-yo’s out of legislators

 

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial calling for a “quick fix” to address “legitimate concerns” with Assemblymember Mullin’s legislation:

San Francisco Chronicle Editorial: “License plate bill needs a quick fix”

Change an expiration date, go to jail

Raising alarms among groups that oppose adding more laws that result in imprisonment for minor offenses — selectively criminalizing  low-income consumers and people of color — AB 516 would make altering just the expiration date on a temporary tag a wobbler/ felony offense, subjecting car buyers to a potential prison sentence of 2-3 years.

Imagine: you are a single mom with three kids. You have only one car. You keep being pulled over by the police and ticketed because you have not received your permanent plates. You take time from work and go to the DMV, waiting in line over and over again, to no avail. Each time, you lose desperately needed income.

If you are detained by the police one more time, making you late for work, you will lose your job. In your desperation, you take a magic marker and change just the expiration date on your temporary tags. You do NOT alter the number on the tags, so toll agencies and law enforcement officers can still readily identify the car, for toll collection or public safety purposes.  For this offense, you could be heavily fined, convicted of a FELONY, and sent to prison for 2- 3 years.

Law enforcement agrees: consumers should not be punished for the wrongs committed by car dealers or the DMV

Consumer groups and the California Police Officers Association worked together and drafted amendments to AB 516 that would have addressed the serious problems with the bill, and presented those to the author’s staff, at an in-person meeting. The amendments would have changed the bill so that:

  • When law enforcement officials detect that your car has a temporary tag with an expired date, they would have to check an existing law enforcement database, that they can already access electronically, to find out whether you were issued permanent plates. In a matter of seconds, they can tell. If the plates have not been sent to your address, you would not be pulled over or issued a citation.

 

  • It would be an infraction — not a wobbler / felony —  to alter just the expiration date on a single temporary tag, leaving the rest of the tag unaltered and readily traceable.

The California Police Officers Association, to its credit, expressed the sentiment that its members are not anxious to pull over and detain people who are already frustrated because they cannot get their permanent plates, so long as they properly display the temporary tags, and the car is readily identifiable for public safety purposes.

However, Assemblymember Mullin refused to accept those amendments. Instead, he added a “fig leaf” to the bill that would require consumers who have not received their permanent plates to prove their own innocence by obtaining a form from the DMV and showing it, if they are detained.

That may sound easy, but in reality, it’s just another Catch-22. The form cited in the bill requires that you sign, under penalty of perjury, that you are the “registered owner of record.” But that’s the problem. You are not the registered owner. The DMV has a history of rejecting car buyers’ attempts to fill out and submit those forms, unless their registration is already complete, and in their names. But that’s the problem. It’s up to the dealer to complete the registration.  Gotcha.

 

 

 

 

Buying a car from a dealer in California may get even more hazardous to your financial health

When you buy a car at an auto dealership, you should be able to get all the terms in writing BEFORE you sign anything — right?  Right. But for California car buyers, that may change. Why? Because car dealers are aggressively lobbying to get rid of the consumer protection laws in California that currently prohibit them from using “e-contracting.”

The California New Car Dealers Association and Enterprise Holdings (one of the largest sellers of used cars) are pushing for passage of AB 380, authored by Assemblymember Matt Dababneh (D-Van Nuys), powerful chair of the California Assembly Committee on Banking.

But pro-consumer groups including Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety, CALPIRG, the Consumer Federation of California, Consumer Action, Public Counsel, the California Reinvestment Coalition, the Center for Responsible Lending, and Public Good are fighting back, to preserve protections for California car buyers.

Who would benefit the most if AB 380 passes?

One of the biggest winners would be Credit Acceptance Corp. What’s their business model?

Mother Jones: “They Had Created this Remarkable System for Taking Every Last Dime from Their Customers: Welcome to the Lucrative, Predatory World of Subprime Auto Loans”

Here’s why groups that work on behalf of consumers and against powerful, crooked special interests are opposing AB 380:

Large coalition of pro-consumer, pro-economic justice organizations opposes AB 380

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety opposes AB 380 (Dababneh)

Consumer Federation of California

CALPIRG

What’s wrong with e-contracting in car transactions?

Unscrupulous car dealers and shady lenders LOVE “e-contracting.” A LOT. That’s because the combination of high-pressure sales tactics at the car dealership — aimed at consumers who are often tired and feeling rushed after hours of haggling and test-driving cars — and all-electronic transactions make it much easier for dealers and crooked lenders to get away with fraud, forgery, and other illicit (but oh-so profitable!) flim-flam.

Among crooked car dealers’ favorite e-contracting scams: selling cars in excess of the agreed-upon price, “packing” loans with thousands of dollars in unwanted, high-profit, worthless add-ons, overcharging for license fees and pocketing the difference, selling cars that fail to pass smog,  charging bogus “government” fees, and engaging in other types of fraud.

Unlike with home purchases, where there are strict, built-in protections, auto sales transactions fail to require the seller to provide you with a written, good faith estimate of all the costs three days in advance, before you sign.  Buying a car is much riskier. It’s also riskier than credit card transactions, where there are limits on your liability in the event of identity theft or fraud.

You have a lot to lose

Under the federal Truth in Lending Act, you are entitled to get all the disclosures about an auto loan in writing. BEFORE you sign anything. Like: What will the monthly payments be? How much will you have to pay in interest?  How long will the loan last? Up front. In your own hands. Then if you wish, you can leave the dealership and take that document with you and shop around, to see if you can find another dealer or lender who will beat that offer. You have that important right, thanks to federal law.

California law also prohibits dealers from using e-contracts. That means when you buy a car in California, the dealer should hand you a paper document, with everything in writing, all nicely filled in. You can look at the entire document at one time, or zero in on any part of it. You get to review the whole contract before you decide whether you want to agree to anything. You can tell that “friendly” F & I manager to stop hovering over you, while you read it. You can take it with you while you sip a cup of coffee in a quiet spot. You can show it to your spouse, or friends, or an attorney, or anyone you wish,  BEFORE you sign.

But if the dealers and lenders have their way, and gut California’s law against e-contracting in auto sales, dealers will be able to get away with concealing vital terms on a computer screen that you may not even be able to read. You certainly cannot take the computer or e-pad with you and shop around. It won’t be in your control. Instead, it will be in the dealership’s control.

If  AB 380 passes, car dealers can lure consumers into signing in advance that they agreed to let the dealer use e-contracting, to buy a car.  They can make it sound like it’s no big deal. Then they can use that against car buyers, if there are any disagreements over what they agreed upon. Making matters worse, “signing” can be done by anyone who has access to the computer — with the click of a mouse.  It would become virtually impossible to prove your signature was forged. Your “signature” could be added with a click. By anyone.

And — you won’t get anything in writing, on paper, until AFTER the documents have already been “signed.” By then, it’s too late, and you may be held legally obligated to pay, even if you are the victim of a scam.

Consumers fight back

Some dealers in California have jumped the gun and are already acting as if it were legal for them to use e-contracts. With unfortunate but predictable results. Consumers are starting to complain they didn’t get to see the screen, and dealers are adding thousands of dollars extra, above the purchase price that was negotiated; giving the consumers thousands less than the agreed-upon value of their trade-ins; and adding in worthless, expensive service contracts  — even when the consumers rejected them, during negotiations. One dealer added over $4000 in multiple unwanted, worthless extra service contracts onto the purchase of a new car, plus “surface protection” costing over $1200 and “Lo Jack” costing $695 — extremely high-profit items for car dealers.

In some cases, consumers have won the right take these dealers to court, because the judges agreed that the contracts were not binding, citing the existing law that prohibits e-contracting. Otherwise, the consumers could be forced into arbitration, basically being compelled to surrender their Constitutional right to fight back in a court of law.

If the predatory dealers and lenders win, and AB 380 passes, consumers would be likely to lose those court challenges they are winning now, and could be forced to give up their ability to hold unscrupulous dealers accountable.

Winners and Losers

If AB 380 passes, the biggest winners will be large auto dealership chains like AutoNation, which took in over $19 billion in gross revenue in 2014. They are publicly traded on Wall Street. Their biggest investor? Bill Gates.

The biggest losers will be California’s new and used car buyers who can ill-afford to give away thousands of their hard-earned dollars to mega-dealers and big banks for the privilege of being ripped off.

What can you do to help stop AB 380, the crooked car dealers and fraudulent lenders’ favorite bill?

Call your Assemblymember and tell them to vote NO on AB 380. Buying a car from a car dealer in California is already dangerous enough.  Here’s where to find out who your Assemblymember in Sacramento is: Find Your Legislator

Thank you! Every call helps make a difference!

Read more:

Large coalition of pro-consumer, pro-economic justice organizations opposes AB 380

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety opposes AB 380 (Dababneh)

More pro-consumer organizations are also opposing AB 380:

Consumer Federation of California

CALPIRG

Public Counsel

Attorney David Valdez, who represents many victims of unscrupulous auto dealers and lenders

 

 

 

Can’t get your car registered? Stopped by Police? You are not alone.

According to the Associated Press, Minnesotan Philando Castile, who was shot and killed during an otherwise “routine” traffic stop, had been pulled over at least 52 times in recent years, in and around the Twin Cities, and cited for minor offenses. He had been assessed over $6500 in fines and fees, although many violations had been dismissed in court.

His tragic death is a stark and heartrending reminder of what can go horribly wrong when car drivers are pulled over by police. It should also raise serious, urgent questions about why some people are being pulled over at all.

Consumer and civil rights groups are raising alarms about a new law that was just enacted in California that will lead to many innocent people being pulled over by police, ticketed, having their cars impounded, and facing severe criminal sanctions. Why? Because car dealers failed to provide them with permanent license plates within the 90-day deadline for displaying permanent plates.

Governor Jerry Brown just signed the bill, AB 516, into law in the nation’s largest, most diverse state. It is now on track to take effect in January, 2019. So there is still time to change it before more innocent car buyers are harmed.

According to the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area, “LCCR recently published, in collaboration with other groups, a report entitled Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, which shows the many ways that low-income California drivers, and particularly communities of color, are impacted by unfair laws that result in license suspensions and hefty fines, and that lead people into an endless cycle of debt and court involvement from which they cannot extricate themselves. Rather than reverse this trend, AB 516 would contribute to it.”

Here’s why this obvious injustice keeps happening, and how AB 516 would make it worse:

Under California’s current law, car buyers who purchase new or used cars without permanent metal license plates, at a car dealership, pay the dealer $29 for an “electronic vehicle registration or transfer charge” plus an $80  “document processing charge” to handle the registration. Sometimes they pay an additional $100 or more for a “registration /transfer/titling fee.” Then they drive off the car lot with a document that is folded up and taped in the back window that shows the date of sale and other relevant information. The dealer is supposed to handle the registration, and send them the permanent plates, either directly or by hiring a company approved by the DMV.

Car buyers must install permanent plates as soon as they receive them, or within 90 days. There are no exceptions. The law says they have to put them on the car before the 91st day — even if they have not received them, through no fault of their own. No plates? Tough. Hapless car buyers still face being pulled over, ticketed, and having their car impounded.

The kicker: There is NO requirement for dealers to ensure that car buyers receive their permanent plates within the 90 days. Some dealers take advantage of this major loophole in the law to abuse the system and increase their profits. As a result, this scenario plays out all too often:

You pay good money to buy a car from a car dealer. You drive it home. You paid cash, or if you got a car loan, you are making the payments, in full and on time. Life is good. Until….

You are pulled over by the police. Why? Because the temporary registration has expired, and you have not received the permanent plates. Why not? Because the dealer failed to submit the registration documents to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

As in, the dealer went out of business without paying the taxes he collected, or submitting documents to the DMV — some dealers do this to hundreds of people, then go belly up. OR —

  • The dealer entered the wrong Vehicle ID Number (VIN) into the system.
  • The dealer fired the person who handles vehicle registrations and hasn’t gotten around to hiring a replacement.
  • The dealer sold you a car that is registered in another state, which can take months to straighten out.
  • The dealer sold you a car with an unpaid lien, and the lender is demanding payment (which can run thousands of dollars) before it will release the title.
  • The dealer had the permanent plates sent to him, and not to you, so he can demand that you pay more, under threat of being pulled over again and again, and having your car impounded.
  • The DMV has a backlog in issuing permanent plates.
  • The DMV entered the wrong VIN.
  • Or — one of a myriad of other scenarios that are beyond your control.

None of that is your fault. You paid the fees for the dealer to properly register the car, when you bought it. It’s the dealer or the DMV who messed up. But who gets penalized? YOU.

According to consumer attorney Steven Simons, on July 19, 2014, Matthew Smith and his brother Luke bought a 2003 Acura for about $6900 (plus financing) from a dealership in Van Nuys, CA.  They paid the dealer the usual fees to handle the registration. But the dealer failed to follow through and do his job. Despite repeated attempts by the Smiths to get their car properly registered, and their fruitless attempts to get the DMV to assist them, to this day their Acura has not been properly registered, and they have not received their permanent plates. Meanwhile, police officers in several jurisdictions have repeatedly pulled Matthew over, including at gunpoint, and detained him for hours, searching him and his car.

Think this is wrong? We agree! Unfortunately, it’s going to get a lot worse, when AB 516 takes effect.

The author of AB 516 is Bay Area Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (D-San Mateo). The most avid backers are toll authorities, who want temporary tags to be mandated, so they will rake in more revenue. Currently, they lose money when people who don’t have readily traceable plates drive through unattended toll booths without paying.

The other major backers are the car dealers. They keep pushing aggressively to shorten the amount of time car buyers have to install permanent plates, or face criminal penalties. California car buyers used to have 6 months to install permanent plates. Then in 2011, car dealers persuaded legislators to cut the time in half, to 90 days. Recently, car dealers tried to get lawmakers to slice the deadline in half again, to just 45 days. That bill has temporarily stalled, pending enactment of AB 516. But dealers are expected to bring it back.

The author claims that the first ticket you would get is supposedly just a “fix-it” ticket. So what’s the big deal?  Here’s the catch: you cannot fix it. Typically, people caught in this trap call the dealer and the DMV over and over again, file complaints, and even go in person and spend hours at the DMV and dealership waiting around, and pleading with them. What they discover is that getting the registration completed, so they can drive legally, is out of their hands. It is an exercise in extreme frustration.

Sometimes it takes over a year to get things straightened out. By then, many people are pulled over repeatedly and ticketed, and their cars are impounded. Even if they pay all the tickets and the hefty impound fees, they cannot get their cars back because they are not the registered owners.

What happens to many hard-working consumers when their cars are impounded? They often lose their only means of transportation to work, and their jobs. Then they default on the car loan. Guess who swoops in to take back the car? The dealer. Then he turns around and resells the same car, over and over again, making a profit each time. You, on the other hand, get stuck with no car, a repossession that harms your credit for at least 7 years, harassing phone calls from the lender demanding immediate payment of the remaining car loan, and no job.

The bottom line: the bill will play right into the hands of unscrupulous car dealers, who want customers to give up and default on car loans, because they can make bigger profits from reselling the cars, and trashing people’s lives. According to a major series of reports by Ken Bensinger at the Los Angeles Times, some dealers in California engage in the practice of “churning” cars — reselling the same car over and over again — as a regular business practice.

The bill would also make it easier for unscrupulous dealers to engage in an illegal practice known as “yo-yo” financing, which is very common, even among supposedly reputable car dealers. When dealers “yo-yo” a consumer, they sell them a car, hand them the keys, and encourage them drive it away. Weeks later, they reel them back in,  telling them the “financing fell through.” Then threaten to have the consumer arrested for driving with an expired registration, or to report the vehicle as “stolen.” They exploit the fear of criminal sanctions to extract a larger down payment, higher interest rate, or other terms more favorable to the dealer. They refuse to return the down payment or the traded-in vehicle, leaving car buyers over a barrel.

If AB 516 is enacted, dealers will be required to install temporary tags. Good idea. We are in favor of law enforcement agencies being able to properly identify the car and the car buyer. But — the temporary tags will be highly visible, and will have an expiration date that is easy to spot — and easy for a scanning device to pinpoint. Suddenly, people with expired temporary tags will become ridiculously easy to target. Enforcement of that 90-day deadline, which tends to be relatively spotty now, will skyrocket.

Here’s what will happen, only a vastly larger scale: In a village on Long Island, New York, “Since the scanners went live Nov. 2, they have been triggering an average of 700 alarms a day, mainly about cars on the road with expired or suspended registration stickers. Officers have impounded 500 vehicles. They’ve written more than 2,000 court summonses, mostly for minor violations.”

Plus — AB 516 would make altering even just the expiration date on a temporary tag a wobbler/ felony offense, subjecting car buyers to a potential prison sentence of 2-3 years. Imagine: you keep being pulled over by the police because you have not received your permanent plates. If you are detained one more time, making you late for work, you will lose your job. In your desperation you take a magic marker and change the expiration date. For this “horrible crime,” you will be at risk of having to do hard time in prison. Even though you have not altered the number of the temporary tag, and toll agencies and law enforcement can readily identify the car, for toll collection or public safety purposes.

Consumer groups and the California Police Officers Association worked together and drafted amendments to AB 516 that would have addressed these serious problems with the bill, and presented those to the author’s staff, at an in-person meeting. The amendments would have changed the bill so that:

  • When law enforcement officials detect that your car has a temporary tag with an expired date, they would have to check an existing law enforcement database, that they can already access electronically, to find out whether you were issued permanent plates. In a matter of seconds, they can tell. If the plates have not been sent to your address, you would not be issued a citation.
  • It would be an infraction, not a wobbler / felony, to alter just the expiration date on the temporary tag, leaving the rest of the tag unaltered and readily traceable.

The California Police Officers Association, to its credit, expressed the sentiment that its members are not overly eager to pull over and detain people who are already frustrated because they cannot get their permanent plates, so long as they properly display the temporary tags, and the car is readily identifiable for public safety purposes.

However, Assemblymember Mullin refused to accept those amendments. Instead, he added a “fig leaf” to the bill that would require consumers who have not received their permanent plates to prove their own innocence by obtaining a form from the DMV and showing it, if they are detained. That may sound easy, but in reality, it’s just another Catch-22. The form cited in the bill requires that you sign, under penalty of perjury, that you are the “registered owner of record.” But that’s the problem. You are not the registered owner. That is why you didn’t receive your permanent plates. Gotcha.

Read more — letters opposing  AB 516:

Courage Campaign

Consumers for Auto Reliability and Safety

Consumer Federation of California

California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney and Judge Pro-Tem Steven Simons

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney David Valdez

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Greg Babbitt

Lemon law / auto fraud attorney Balam Latona

Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area

Citizens United for a Responsible Budget (CURB)

Law firm of Kemnitzer, Barron & Krieg