Civil Asset Forfeiture

Although the State of Kansas Admits This Guy Is Innocent, It Still Wants To Destroy His 1959 Corvette

Richard Martinez lost his dream car because of VIN-plate issues prosecutors admit he was "not aware of."

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After decades of looking, Richard Martinez finally found his dream car at Jabaay Motors in Merrillville, Indiana: a red-and-white 1959 Corvette convertible with a hard top. But when he tried to register the car back home in Kansas, the Kansas Highway Patrol (KHP) seized it as "contraband." Now the car is sitting in a Topeka impound lot, ready to be destroyed by the state unless Martinez's legal challenge is successful, even though prosecutors concede he is innocent.

Martinez's convertible, which cost him $50,000, has been in state custody since 2017. He says it has been damaged in storage, which means he will have to spend another $28,000 or so on repairs if he ever gets the car back. That's on top of the $30,000 he already has spent on legal fees.

Under Kansas law, police are supposed to seize any car whose vehicle identification number (VIN) "has been destroyed, removed, altered or defaced." Such "contraband" vehicles "shall be destroyed." There is no exception for a car lawfully purchased by someone who had no reason to be aware of its VIN issues.

KCTV, a Kansas City CBS station, reports that the dashboard VIN plate on Martinez's Corvette was removed years ago during the car's restoration and replaced with new rivets. "Many states are flexible on how the VIN is reattached after restoration," says KCTV, noting that the car already had been licensed and registered in another state. "But Kansas is not so flexible." The station adds that "the VIN number on the engine was no help," because "the original engine in the 62-year-old car had been replaced." Using a mirror, police located a third, inconsistent VIN plate in a "secret" location under the car.

"The government concedes Mr. Martinez did nothing wrong," the Kansas Justice Institute (KJI) notes in an amicus brief arguing that the statute requiring seizure of the convertible violates due process. Prosecutors admitted that Martinez was "not aware of the [VIN] issues and defects," saying "there is no question" he is "an innocent owner." But under the law, the state says, that does not matter.

"This is not fair," Martinez told KCTV. "Everybody's saying I didn't do anything. The states that had [the car] gave approval to it."

In 1982, the KJI brief notes, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled that a similar law violated due process. That case involved a man named Allison Bridegroom, who had purchased a 1979 Pontiac Grand Prix without realizing that the "confidential VIN had been mutilated." The effect of the Illinois law, the court noted, was to "strip the possessor of all rights to the automobile by declaring the automobile to be contraband even though the purchaser is completely innocent and had no way of discovering any wrongdoing, and although no other person's rights were interfered with."

The Illinois Supreme Court rejected the state's argument that the law helped undermine the market for stolen cars even when it penalized an innocent owner. "While no one can deny that the twin goals of catching car thieves and deterring thefts are highly desirable, it does not appear that depriving the innocent purchaser of his property will further either purpose," it said. "Bridegroom took the necessary steps to assure himself that the vehicle identification number located at the place required by regulations matched the identification number on the title. That is all that this statute could constitutionally require. Placing a number at some concealed or confidential place on the vehicle undoubtedly has its value for purposes of identification, but such a number cannot be used for the purpose of declaring this vehicle in this case, under these facts, contraband per se. Such a declaration constitutes a due process violation."

By the same logic, the KJI argues, seizing and destroying Martinez's Corvette is likewise a violation of due process. The brief also says the Kansas law is unconstitutionally vague because it allows the KHP to assign a new VIN when it "is satisfied" that a vehicle "contains no stolen parts" without specifying what "is satisfied" means.

That provision, Martinez and Jabaay Motors argue, means the KHP had the authority to register the Corvette instead of seizing it. But the state says "there is no way for the Patrol to assign a new number to the vehicle…because there is no way to determine that the vehicle contains no stolen parts." At the same time, the state stipulated that no one "has determined that there are any stolen parts in or on the vehicle."

Although the KHP "had four years to investigate whether Mr. Martinez's car has stolen parts," the KJI brief notes, "the government still maintains that it is not satisfied that the car does not contain stolen parts, and thus cannot assign a VIN….Under the government's reading of the statute, satisfaction is based solely on its whim. Whether the government's position is supported by evidence or not makes no difference. The government, and the government alone, decides the meaning of 'is satisfied.'"

Martinez's forfeiture trial began in Johnson County District Court last July. The judge asked for input from the KJI and from Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, who declined to participate.

Unlike in most civil forfeiture cases, police and prosecutors do not have a financial stake in the fate of Martinez's car, which they plan to destroy. The case nevertheless raises the familiar issue of how it can be just to punish an innocent person by naming his property as the defendant, a legal fiction that gets around the usual due process protections.

"Asset forfeiture is bad enough," says KJI Litigation Director Sam MacRoberts. "But it's especially bad in this case because the government admits Mr. Martinez did nothing wrong….When the government knows someone is innocent, they shouldn't use their power and resources to take their property. Kansas' forfeiture laws are to blame. The United States and Kansas Constitutions do not permit the government to acknowledge a person's innocence, on the one hand, and then with the other, declare the innocent person's property 'contraband' and take it."

NEXT: President Biden Doesn't Follow D.C.'s Absurd Mask Rules for Restaurants

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  1. He should've known by the way he parked the car sideways that it wouldn't last.

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  2. It's okay. Even if the current owner is completely innocent, I am sure the Corvette is guilty of something, and therefor needs to be destroyed.

    1. It fits the description of another 1959 red and white corvette.

    2. It's like a racehorse. Once the VIN number is shot, it needs to be put down.

  3. Under Kansas law, police are supposed to seize any car whose vehicle identification number (VIN) "has been destroyed, removed, altered or defaced." Such "contraband" vehicles "shall be destroyed."

    And this is fucked up.

    1. So it has the original VIN plate, but because the plate had temporarily been removed, it's forever a non-car. See, ordinarily I'd understand "removed" to mean "missing"; is there any case law or regulation on that understanding?

      1. "Using a mirror, police located a third, inconsistent VIN plate in a "secret" location under the car."

        Cars usually have three VIN plates, one in the spot we all know on the dash, another on the engine, and a third somewhere on the chassis, usually at the rear near the truck. It sounds like this third plate and the dash plate don't match, and that is a problem unless there is a satisfactory explanation. This YouTube vid gives a better explanation of the controversy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABrE7GVp1qs

      2. It's not the temporarily removed VIN plate that is the problem. It's that that plate is almost certainly false, and that the hidden plate is almost certainly the correct one. Which makes it almost certainly true that Kansas ought not be satisfied that the car doesn't contain stolen parts, b/c it almost certainly does. But if they had any sense they'd try to run down the owner from the hidden VIN and if they couldn't find one they would DECLARE themselves satisfied on that point and issue a new VIN lest they be revealed as being eager to be asshats to to a Kansas citizen. Who would have standing to challenge that discretion? Crushing the 'vette obviously offends normal sensibilities, after all. (Though I wonder if a price of only $50k for a cherry restored '59 Corvette doesn't mean the purchaser ought to know something was not on the up and up. The average price of perfectly ordinary used cars averages $21k, I believe, so that sounds low.)

        So, the purchaser clearly has a cause of action against the seller and, I would think, enough damages ($75k?) to get him into Federal court. Or does he have to start in the seller's State courts?

        Also, does the title issued in the seller's State pose a "full faith and credit" issue?

        1. $21k for an ordinary used car? Maybe in 2021, but pre-pandemic? No way.

        2. Nothing about the mismatched numbers indicates a stolen vehicle or parts. Yeah in a late model Camry it probably does, but classic cars where you may have salvaged 3 or 4 cars to build one doesn't mean anything illegal happened. There's a reason why matching number cars cost more, and that's because an extraordinary level of care in restoration or preservation.

          There are a couple of sub $60k 59 vettes on ebay motors right now. Given his was purchased four years ago, it's probably similar: nice looking, but not fully correct.

  4. Damn, some state official really wants that car, doesn't he?

    1. More like "If I can't have it, no one can! Junk it!"

  5. Using a mirror, police located a third, inconsistent VIN plate in a "secret" location under the car.

    Are the bureaucrats actually so stupid as to think their secret place really is a secret?

    1. It's also unreasonable to assume that a car from 1959 won't have some components that were recycled from other cars. It's not like you can get parts for a '59 Corvette from GM anymore.

    2. Inconsistent with the other 2 numbers on replacement parts? And this surprised them somehow?

    3. The third is on the chassis. Not really a replacement part.

      1. So that's the right number and the other 2 don't match. Fix the paperwork.

    4. I've met members of states highway patrol who believed they knew secret VIN locations and wouldn't believe me when I told them that restoration books and websites list these and it's not a secret.

      1. I find it hard to believe that a location to hide a vin# on a car has been kept secret for 60 years.

    5. I assume you could find the location of the "secret" VIN stamp online. The KHP must anyway have a book, and keeping its contents secret from Corvette afictionados is a no-hoper.

      You would think the "restorer" would have taken the trouble to fill in the old stamp and stamp the area to match the fake dash VIN, or manufacture a fake plate. It wouldn't have to be all that good to pass inspection look using an under-car mirror, I'd bet.

      1. On early 70s Mopars it's definitely not a plate, it's just part of the VIN stamped in a couple of locations on pieces of sheet metal. One of which is the radiator support, which is damned near guaranteed to get fucked up enough to replace in even a fairly mild nose collision.

        These locations, if "secret" are certainly a very well known secret.

  6. ...and then the state AG was forced to pay the full $100k in legal fees plus the value of the vehicle and penalties for civil rights violations and lost his job.

    That's what's going to happen, right?

    1. You probably think Basement Bunker Biden is a "moderate", don't you?

      1. Biden is known for his love of Camaros. He’d be on the car collector’s side.

        1. Nope. Rules are rules. And in in some way, without the proper vin tags, you could say the car is trespassing in public roads, and could be easy to justify shooting it.

  7. The owner is innocent, but the car is a suspect in a series of murders.

    https://stephenking.com/works/novel/christine.html

    1. I talk to all my cars in the hopes they will love me and commit crimes.

      1. It would probably help if you blew their horn.

  8. Did Kansas go for Trump or Biden? I need to know this before I can decide if Kansas was in the right or not. Because it's all about tribal membership.

    1. No, no, the color of everyone’s skin is by far the most important factor.

      1. The car is red and white, so I can't decide which is more critical. The Native aspect or the Caucasian?

  9. Gonna steal your Chevrolet
    Gonna steal your Chevrolet
    Gonna steal your Chevrolet
    Just do somthin' for you
    Just do somthin' for you

  10. What "VIN issues" did Kansas discover? And why isn't Jabaay motors liable?

    1. That was one of the first questions that came into my mind.

      The next was; how is that liability to be determined?

    2. According to the blog post:

      “Using a mirror, police located a third, inconsistent VIN plate in a ‘secret’ location under the car.”

      Kind of an odd claim, as I can’t imagine the location of the VIN numbers on a classic car could be kept secret for several decades.

      1. "Secret" is in scare quotes, so, no, not odd.

        The question about Jabaay motors is a good one, but maybe they -were- sued.

        I can't find the State of Kansas, ex rel. Kansas Highway Patrol v. 1959 Chevrolet Corvette pleadings. That might help.

      2. Why were they looking?

        1. It's actually pretty common to need to get a VIN inspection when one first registers a car in a new state. At least with older ones. And they check multiple locations to make sure they match. In post... I think it's 1968 but I can't remember for sure and I'm too lazy to look it up -- vehicles, there's a sticker on the trailing side of the driver's door that is often used as a secondary VIN source. I've had to go through this several times in New Mexico.

    3. apparently the car dealer had had the car registered in their state, no problem. This could easily become an issue of "interstate commerce", a federal issue. One state hold the car is legal,legit, authentic, but when it is taken accross state lines to another state, that second state refuses to acknowledge that the goods coming from the first state are legit and possession by the new owner denied.

      1. Is this a full faith and credit issue?

        Seems like case law on title to runaway or transported slaves might be relevant.

    4. Here's an explanation of the entire VIN situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ABrE7GVp1qs

  11. *this* is worth lighting things on fire.

  12. Laws like this are the natural result of making car-theft a crime! If you don't support these kinds of laws you can't consistently claim to be anti-car-theft!

    Sorry, I thought for a second we were discussing abortion.

    1. All that comment did was reveal your political obsessions.

      1. So...no rebuttal?

        1. Of course not. It would require thought.

          1. Thought? Team Stupid don't need no stinkin THOUGHT! It's all about FEELS!

  13. Well, if you want a jobs program for some economically irrelevant classes in the automotive industry - dealers and mechanics, primarily - you need to have some harsh and specific rules to keep out the riff raff (competition).

    Imagine if cars didn't have to come from a mandatory and specific production pipeline. They might not even meet fuel economy standards!!!

    1. they don't. Anyone who wants to can build a car from scrap iron, an old used engine and gearbox, etc. States will have rules about what equipment mut be on it, depending on year of the main parts.....

      1. If you don't like it you can always start your own car company...

  14. Whines This is why we can’t have nice things!

  15. What's the matter with Kansas?

    1. Not enough government spending, I've been told.

    2. Too white male?

      1. + disproportionate percentage of redhead chicks it's lovely.

    3. Toto died.

      1. The best part of this comment is that I don't know if it's a joke about The Wizard of Oz or 80's bands. 😀

  16. "The United States and Kansas Constitutions do not permit the government to acknowledge a person's innocence, on the one hand, and then with the other, declare the innocent person's property 'contraband' and take it."

    Maybe someday Reason will stop credulously quoting plaintiffs' attorneys.

    If someone surreptitiously puts five pounds of heroin in your bag before you go the airport, you better pray that the government "acknowledge a person's innocence, on the one hand, and then with the other, declare the innocent person's property 'contraband' and take it" because the alternative would be very, very bad for you.

    The definition of contraband never required a mens rea.

    1. The alternative is you get to keep the heroin.

    2. Executive branch officials have never been able to declare objects contraband by fiat. Heroin is defined as contraband by statue, and this fact does not depend on the arbitrary determination of some official. Your analogy is inapt.

      1. Statute*, obviously.

    3. Your example is erroneous in that the heroin was never the property of our imaginary person.

      In this case, they declare property to be non property. Better, they do so entirely on a technicality about number plates whose only purpose is to indicate that a crime has occurred

      Either the car is stolen or it is not. The state agrees that it is not. But they declare it as such anyway.

      Since nobody wants to step up and take responsibility, the judge should do so.

      We have seen that top level judges decide the desired outcome and then back into the decision. If the case is truly as presented, this is what they should do.

    4. For your analogy to work, they'd have to have the material in custody for a long time without being able to prove it's heroin.

    5. The analogy eludes me.

      If the government acknowledges that someone secretly put 5# of heroin in my baggage then obviously I would have no property interest in it.

  17. Engine serial numbers were never tied to a specific vehicle by GM even in the fifties. No build plate listed the engine's serial number. Nor to they lilst the serial numbers of brake drums, carburetters, differentials..... it is the chassis number that DEFINES the car.

    It is signficant that the Kansas poohbahs have failed to find any evidence of theft or other violations in the years they've had the car. Whatever happened to the concept of "innocent untill OROVEN guilty"? Until/unless they can PROVE this part was stolen at some point, they have NO case. They MUST issue and install a new VIN. They are being butts about it. They know and admit he is innocent, but are borderline insane in their insistance they must destry the car.

    And they wonder why so many folks these days hate the pollice. THIS is why.
    They can't even let the courts sort it out. Dirtbags.
    Makes me pretty certain my search for a replacement state for the one I now occupy will NOT lead to Kansas.

    1. It should be agreed by all that the willful destruction of a '59 'vette is a crime against humanity.

    2. Innocent until proven guilty is a nostrum about criminal trials. It has no relevance to the defendant (the Corvette) in this civil action.

      Why must KS issue a VIN? The "satisfied" part of the statute certainly doesn't require it.

      1. If KS can't prove it was stolen, they should be legally satisfied.

    3. So, you are disputing the claim in the article that the VIN was stamped on the now-replaced engine? Got any source for that?

    4. "They are being butts about it."

      The authority bureaucrats have taken a stand and no one wants the shame of having backed down. It's now win lose, and the car gets it.

  18. English cars right up into the late 1960's and even 1970's had only ONE number anywhere on them. It was stamped on a small aliminium plate (2" x 3", some were 2.5" x 3.5") fixed to the firewall or coaming in the engine compartment. Jaguar used a much larger plate and did include engine and frame number as well as the car's number. Everyone knew any engine or gearbox could be removed and set into another car, and it never affected anything. Up until the late 1970's Jaguar even stamped the engine number on the cylinder head as well ass the block. SO if the head packs in, they will not match. I wonder if Kansas would destroy a 1955 Jaguarl XK 140 MC FHC because the cylinder head no longer matches that on the Build Plate.

    Sometimes gummit just gotta be stupid. And we PAY them for this?

    1. A VIN would have to be assigned as part of the import process, no? Would it somehow be marked on the car?

      Seems to me I see the VIN most often on a plate exposed when you open the driver's door.

  19. The author is either dim-witted or bent on being tendentious. While Martinez may be innocent of intent to possess a contraband car, the car is nevertheless contraband under Kansas law. Martinez's innocence doesn't change that.

    The real problem is the Kansas law. Any sufficiently old vehicle -- especially one that has been modified, hopped-up, and restored over the years -- will eventually have mismatched VIN plates as parts are repaired, removed, or swapped out over the decades. And like the man who always wore two watches but never knew what time it was, installing multiple VIN plates creates as many problems as it solves: which is the canonical VIN plate? If you assemble one show car out of three donor wrecks, which VIN is the true VIN? It seems Kansas needs to apply some common-sense limits to their law. Unless one of the VINs belongs to a car reported stolen, the car should be re-titled to reflect its diverse heritage.

    1. Did you actually suggest that politicians and common sense should go in the same sentence????

    2. The dashbord VIN has been removed and reinstalled, and if it is true that the engine has a VIN stamp no one is arguing about that one. The "hidden" VIN on the chassis is a much more substantial indication of what car this is. Is there a national database?

      And how did the title in the seller's state get issued, apparently under the dashboard VIN?

      It would be nice to see the pleadings.

      1. If it was reported stolen, the chassis VIN should show up as being stolen on a national database. (Because that's why cars have VINs in the first place, to deter interstate theft).

  20. Land of the free my ass.

  21. When are people going to get sick enough of their states crapping all over them and finally group together, confront lawmakers as one united voice and make them change these screwed up laws?

    1. The 2020 election was close enough to steal and Gov. Gruesom survived recall with a supermajority, so evidently: Never.

    2. make them change these screwed up laws

      we can't agree on what laws are screwed up.

    3. It will take a lot of hardship imposed on enough people to get them to think about government instead of what to have for dinner or to watch on tv. IOW, bread and circus wins until it doesn't.

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  23. So in order to make it more difficult for people to get away with car theft, the law requires the state to steal people's cars?

  24. This explains a few things. I was looking for some rivets and went on E-bay. I found some rivets that were going for $35 to $70 for two of them. This made me realize that they were for reattaching the VIN plate after restoration or other things.

  25. You buy an apartment building. It turns out, much to your chagrin, that all the fire escape doors are seled shut and there’s a link in the natural gas pipes, the placecatches fire and everybody dies.

    But you are completely jnnocent. You didn’t know anything about this. And there is no way you possibly could have, because you can show you never entered the building before you bought it.

    Is it fair for the state to hold you, a completely innocent owner, liable for something you didn’t know about?

    1. Should have done due diligence.

      1. No building inspection before you bought it? No mortgage, so the bank didn't insist an inspection? Naive.

  26. This seems to be a rare automotive piece of art. C’mon how many exist in the world.

    I do not know what is really happening here but restored this is worth more than mere dollars.

  27. You can't go against the law. Ask Toto the dog.

    But no worries, that car won't be destroyed. It will be lost in some cop's garage.

  28. law is made for us ..so follow rules.

  29. I'd hate to think what they would have done with my Japanese Domestic Market 93 Suzuki Cappuccino which has no VIN number whatsoever. As it was here in PA I had to go to 3 different notaries before I found one that would register it and that was only after I had to have a mechanic sign a notarized statement that the vehicle, indeed came that way from the factory.

  30. "Under the government's reading of the statute, satisfaction is based solely on its whim."

    I don't mind a cursory record check when interstate transferring a vehicle. Usually, it is a matter of turning in your previous state tags for new ones. If the vehicle was registered in another state, welcome.

    What really is insane is the statement above. That the legal owner has no recourse is wrong. Surely, he has adequate documentation to prove that he owns the vehicle.

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