This is a follow up on a poorly phrased question. Assume a car is the only asset anyone has in this scenario.

Person B steals a car from person A by forging the registration in a fraudulent manner.

Then Person C steals the car.

What happens to the car once everyone is caught? Does person A get the car back, or are they only able to collect damages from person B, who is broke? Does person C keep ownership of the car since they didn't steal from the legitimate owner, or do they give it back to A?

  • 2
    Does this answer your question? Stealing through multiple people Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 3:08
  • The nature of what is forged and the justification for doing a forgery could matter.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 21:58
  • What's the jurisdiction we're talking about here?
    – Ohan
    Commented Jan 10, 2022 at 1:48

3 Answers 3


You cannot pass on better title than you have

The fraudster (B) in this scenario does not have good title in the car and so the thief (C) doesn't either: 1) because they are a thief and 2) because the person they stole it from didn't own it. If C had paid B for the car then C would still not own it because while they are no longer a thief, B still doesn't have good title. This is the case even if C didn't know that B didn't own the car. A is entitled to recover the car from whoever has it.

There are 3 exceptions to this rule:

  1. Voidable title: If B acquires title through a contract that is voidable (e.g. A is a minor) and then sells it to C. C as an owner in good faith owns the goods even if A voids the contract with B.

  2. Entrustment: If B has been entrusted the goods by A and sells them (perhaps by mistake) to C in the ordinary course of B's business. C as a good-faith buyer owns the goods. A can seek recompense from B but cannot get the goods from C. This probably needs an example, I take antique jewellery to an antique jeweller for cleaning, the jeweller's assistant mistakenly sells them, I lose the goods and the jeweller must compensate me.

  3. Negotiable instruments: Certain things, notably cash, cheques, shares and bearer bonds are subject to different rules. If B steals, say cash, from A and then uses that cash to buy something from C, A cannot demand the return of the cash from C unless they can prove that C knew that B had stolen it. Negotiable interests belong to anyone who acquired them in good faith.

In all cases, a good-faith actor who is out of pocket is owed compensation from the bad faith actor - whether it’s possible to collect this is a practical rather than a legal issue.

  • 4
    Maybe worth noting the general principle that, in theory, all good-faith participants in all these scenarios are meant to be made whole; the issue is how that happens. (This will be obvious to readers who have general familiarity with this area of law, but maybe not everyone. And of course in practice, B is judgement-proof, but that's another thing.) You address this in (2), but e.g. in (3) A is still owed recompense by B (obviously); and in the original case where A is entitled to recover the property from C, it's still the case that if C paid B for the car, C is still owed recompense by B. Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 18:30
  • Additional jurisdictions have additional exceptions. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 7:02
  • Consider Market(s) Overt as well. A subsequent purchaser can acquire indefeasible title.
    – mckenzm
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 7:22
  • Entrustment seems like a scenario that covers maybe 70% of the legitimate situations where this can occur. In which case, wouldn't it have been better to say that you always pass on the full title unless the item was stolen? Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 18:37
  • I don't think 1) is valid reasoning ("because they are a thief"). The profession of someone does not matter, IMHO. Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 22:19

Everything may theoretically vary by jurisdiction, which you haven't specified.

Stolen property remains the property of the lawful owner.

Assuming that Person A can demonstrate their lawful ownership, person A gets the car back.

If the car has been damaged or destroyed, person A may sue persons B and (possibly) C for restitution to cover the loss. In this case, person C is responsible for any damages that occurred while the car was in his/her possession, while person B is responsible for all damages that C does not or cannot pay. The fact that person B is broke may make it difficult to recoup such damages.

If person B's forgery is effective enough to convince the court system that person A actually sold the car to person B, then person B would get the car. But I'm assuming from your phrasing "everyone gets caught" that this is not the case.

There is no scenario in which person C retains possession, as person C has been caught with a stolen vehicle.

  • 3
    What if C paid B $500 for a car that was worth that much in its present condition and then spent $15000 repairing and customizing it [not an implausible scenario for some car enthusiasts]. It would seem that if C acquired the car in good faith, there should be some means by which C should be entitled to buy the car from A for its pre-upgrade value.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 3, 2020 at 20:08
  • 1
    @supercat Perhaps C, upon returning the car to A, would be entitled to damages from A for unjust enrichment (of perhaps $15,000 in this case). Then, they could negotiate on whether A wants to sell the car to C.
    – nanoman
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 8:58
  • 1
    @nanoman: The most equitable outcome would be for C to pay A for the value of the car at the time C received it, and try to recover that from B, and that might be negotiated as a settlement for an unjust enrichment suit, but such a suit would seem in principle unfair if A would rather have the car in pre-upgrade condition than have to pay for upgrades that may be of minimal value to him.
    – supercat
    Commented Jun 4, 2020 at 17:40

I'll consider the legal situation in Germany:

I) Civil Law

In German civil law, there is a distinction between ownership (Eigentum) und posession (Besitz). While the Besitz can change, Eigentum never changes by theft itself (at best if the stolen item is inseparably tied to another). Regardless of this, according to § 935 Abs. 1 S. 1 BGB (civil code of Germany) acquisition of ownership of stolen items in good faith is explicitly impossible.

This means, Person A remains legal owner all the time and is entitled to restitution of the car by whoever is in posession of it according to § 985 BGB.

II) Criminal Law

In Germany, theft is punishable according to § 242 Abs. 1 StGB. There, theft is defined as seizure of a third-party chattel. Seizure is defined as breaching the keeping of somebody else and establishing new (not necessarily own) keeping of the item. NB: Keeping in criminal law is different from posession in civil law.

Since the purpose of the norm is to protect the keeping itself to discourage any kind of unauthorized seizures, even the unlawful keeping is protected. In other words, that a unlawful seizure occured can not justify another seizure. Furthermore, for the owner it becomes harder to get his keeping back if the item is stolen again once he has to trace multiple thefts.

For these reasons, it's possible to render oneself liable to prosecution by stealing an already stolen item out of the keeping of its theft.

a) Person B

By taking away the car from A, Person B commited a theft.

b) Person C

By taking away the car from B, also Person C commited a theft and is liable to prosecution.

  • "it's possible to render oneself liable to prosecution by stealing an already stolen item" - back in the 1970s I knew a guy who was dealing marijuana. He had previously been arrested and fined for this. Some of his customers turned up at his house in a group with knives and robbed him of his stash and his stereo system as well, saying "you can't go to the cops because you'll be busted for dealing again". He knew one of the detectives in his case drank at a certain pub, so he went and told him. The cop said "leave it to me". They went to the home of the ringleader and found the stolen things... Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 10:34
  • ... and charged the group with stealing the stereo, and possessing the marijuana. One of them said "we took his dope as well", thinking to bring down their victim. The cops said "fine, we'll charge you with stealing that too". My friend was charged with nothing, and never had any police trouble again, although he carried on dealing. So you can steal something that the owner should not have. Location: UK. Commented Jun 5, 2020 at 10:36

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