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I sold a car a year ago in TX and didn't realize that I should take the plates off. The buyer has taken full advantage of this and is racking up lots of tolls in my name. Fortunately I'm able to get the tolls dismissed by showing the bill of sale and vehicle transfer form I filed, but they say they won't stop sending me bills until the guy registers the car in his name, so I have the repeated hassle of going to contest these bills.

It's annoying enough I'm tempted to try to find the car somewhere I believe he frequents and just take the plates. I don't know if that would be considered stealing, since I was supposed to remove them anyway, but something tells me this would be a bad idea. I've had all kinds of ideas, for instance, I found that I still have a non-sentry key, so I could theroetically remove the plates but hide them inside the vehicle, which couldn't possibly be considered stealing but would motivate him to register it.

The main thing I wonder is if he could sue me for some kind of monetary damages arising from missing something important because he sees that he suddenly has no plates and doesn't want to risk getting pulled over. Or gets pulled over on his way to something important, etc.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Pat W. Mar 6 at 18:49
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    Bearing in mind that this is Texas, perhaps a better question might be "Should I get myself shot by someone who thinks I'm a car thief" – Richard Mar 7 at 8:28
  • Note that on many vehicles it is not possible to remove the license plates without opening the trunk/rear hatch, thus, entering the vehicle. – RBarryYoung Mar 7 at 15:37
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License plates in Texas are governed by the Texas TRANSPORTATION CODE, TITLE 7. VEHICLES AND TRAFFIC, SUBTITLE A. CERTIFICATES OF TITLE AND REGISTRATION OF VEHICLES, CHAPTER 504 LICENSE PLATES

Texas code section 504.901. TRANSFER AND REMOVAL OF LICENSE PLATES (subsections (b) and (c)) provide that

(b) On the sale or transfer of a motor vehicle to a person who does not hold a general distinguishing number issued under Chapter 503, [i.e. not a dealer] the seller may remove each license plate issued for the motor vehicle. The license plates may be transferred to another vehicle titled in the seller's name if the seller obtains:

(1) the department's approval of an application to transfer the license plates; and

(2) a new registration insignia for the motor vehicle.

(c) A license plate removed from a motor vehicle that is not transferred to another motor vehicle must be disposed of in a manner specified by the department.

It seems that the seller is not required to remove the plates when selling the vehicle

Section 504.010 ISSUANCE AND PLACEMENT OF LICENSE PLATE. provides that:

(a) On payment of the prescribed fee, an applicant for motor vehicle registration shall be issued a license plate or set of plates

This seems to tie the plates to the registration, which means to the person registering them as well as to a particular vehicle.

Section 504.943. OPERATION OF VEHICLE WITHOUT LICENSE PLATE provides that:

(a) Except as provided by Subsection (b), a person commits an offense if the person operates on a public highway, during a registration period, a motor vehicle that does not display two license plates that:

(1) have been assigned by the department for the period; and

(2) comply with department rules regarding the placement of license plates.

Section. 504.944. OPERATION OF VEHICLE WITH WRONG LICENSE PLATE.provides that:

A person commits an offense if the person operates, or as the owner permits another to operate, on a public highway a motor vehicle that has attached to it a number plate or registration insignia issued for a different vehicle. An offense under this section is a misdemeanor punishable by a fine not to exceed $200.

It would seem that under 504.943 or 504.944 (and the related 504.945) the person who bought is committing a misdemeanor every time that the person drives it on public roads or streets. The seller could inform the buyer of this and request the buyer to get new plates, or report the buyer to the police as having improper places, which would allow them to stop the buyer for having improper plates. Use of certified mail would preserve a record of the notification of the buyer. Note that notification is in no way required before reporting to the police, but might induce the buyer to get new plates on his or her own.

Secretly removing the buyer's license plate would probably not be theft, as it seems that the plates actually remain the property of the state, but would at the least involve trespass. It seems unwise at best.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Pat W. Mar 6 at 18:50
  • tags from this question are being discussed on Law Meta – David Siegel Mar 6 at 18:57
  • I don't think the "would at least involve trespassing" part is correct here. It might, but only if you've received notice not to enter the property on which the car is located at the time or been told to leave. See above chat for more details and citations on this. – reirab Mar 7 at 1:26
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Since this happened in Texas, we can refer to the Texas DMV:

Vehicles are required to be titled in the buyer's name within 30 days from the date of sale. Failing to properly transfer a vehicle into the buyer's name could result in the seller being held responsible for tickets, toll violations or even crimes committed with the vehicle. To ensure this doesn't happen to you, accompany the buyer to your county tax office to ensure a vehicle title application is filed.

This is what has happened to you. Fortunately, Texas has a form for you to fill out to inform the state that you no longer own the vehicle:

To protect yourself, file a Vehicle Transfer Notification. When a vehicle transfer notification is received, TxDMV updates the motor vehicle record to show the vehicle as sold. When you file the notification within 30 days from the date of sale, you cannot be held responsible for parking tickets and toll violations that have been committed by the person who purchased the vehicle.

The TXDMV.GOV site has a link to the Vehicle Transfer Notification form and phone numbers and email addresses of the department that you can contact if you have questions.

Even though more than 30 days have passed, you should still file the Vehicle Transfer Notification form to avoid future tolls and tickets.

Since the above doesn't answer your question, I would add a short sentence to say No, do not take the license plates off of a car that you no longer own.

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    Yes I've submitted that form. I just wish I could stop having to periodically get charges dismissed from the toll agencies. – Andy Mar 5 at 6:09
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    @Andy: Consider sending a notice that if they send you another useless bill you will consider suing for harassment as they should already know after the first reject you don't own the car anymore. – Joshua Mar 5 at 16:03
  • @Joshua well, this isn't such an inconvenient that it would be worth suing. The main thing I'm concerned about in the long run is if there would be major hassles for me clearing my name if the guy commits more serious crimes with the vehicle. But hopefully the Vehicle Transfer Notification takes care of that... – Andy Mar 6 at 1:54
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    @Andy You don't actually have to sue them. Just send them a notice saying that you will. It's a way of getting their attention. – thelem Mar 6 at 14:10
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I don't know if that would be considered stealing, since I was supposed to remove them anyway, but something tells me this would be a bad idea.

I can see why you would think that's logical, but yeah, listen to your gut. As the others said, it's a safety issue to do so. And it's still no longer your car, so really you shouldn't be messing with it, even if the plates aren't technically the vehicle owner's property. Plus, suppose someone sees you doing this and calls 911? Then you would be the one at the wrong end of the flashing lights and officers approaching you as a suspected criminal, and you'd have a fair bit of explaining to do, possibly from the back of a squad car and in a room at your local police station. You definitely don't want that.

I've had all kinds of ideas, for instance, I found that I still have a non-sentry key, so I could theoretically remove the plates but hide them inside the vehicle, which couldn't possibly be considered stealing but would motivate him to register it.

Again, you're still going into someone else's car. This is even worse than just taking the plates off. Don't do it.

Since this person has been racking up tolls in your name, though, that sounds to me like identity theft. I'd contact the police right away about it. First gather any evidence you have access to, though, like invoices for the toll charges, the paperwork that shows you sold the vehicle before the toll charges were incurred, and if you have anything that proves you didn't have possession of the car, or that you were physically somewhere else, at some or all of those times. Plan to share with the police what evidence you have

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Since the consensus here is not to take matters into your own hands, consider an alternative: Since the plates belong to the State of Texas, take documentary evidence that your plates are being used improperly to the Texas State Police, provide them a reasonable guess of a date, time and location where they may find the vehicle, and ask them to remove the plates from the vehicle. What happens afterwards depends on their protocols; perhaps they will return the plates to the DMV, or they may give them back to you if you have a use for them.

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I believe you can just report the plates as stolen. You can ask the DMV if you can just report them as stolen without paying the $7 to get a new set. The person who is in possession of them is violating the law by not registering the vehicle, and the plates were supposed to be kept by you (edit: not legally required, but strongly advised).

Regardless of whether Texas considers the vehicle to no longer be your property, the plates appear to still be yours. At this point you cannot say for sure what vehicle those plates are being used on. Your buyer could have even sold the vehicle again. From the DMV's perspective, you could have kept the plates and used them on one of your vehicles without completing the paperwork to do so legally. They don't know. That's why the plates need to be invalidated by the DMV, and I believe reporting them stolen is the way to do this. You can always say that you had a verbal agreement with the buyer to have the plates returned immediately to you or disposed of after driving it home, and since this was never done the plates are now thought to be stolen. The police don't like having stolen plates in use so they should be glad to work with you.

Now to answer your question, you can say that you had a verbal agreement with the buyer to come take the plates back later on. The law will always side with you because they can't prove that this didn't happen, it is completely reasonable for you to do this, and what the buyer is doing is completely illegal if he was driving with them (technically someone else could have stolen the plates just after he drove it home)! So yes!

Information from the Texas DMV

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  • Thanks for the clarifying edits! Unfortunately, now you seem to be suggesting lying about the existence of an agreement, potentially to a law enforcement officer. That's really bad advice, and would entail committing additional crime(s) depending on how far you took that lie. – Ryan M Mar 11 at 8:50
  • @Ryan M, Then they can just say that they had an understanding that the license plates would be returned or disposed of. It's not really lying if they say it that way. Have you ever considered how unfair it is that law enforcement can lie to citizens with no penalties, but not the other way around? If you spend your time trying to be a perfect citizen you'll just end up being a slave to a corrupt and evil government. – Alex Cannon Mar 15 at 19:56
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Seems if you were to take the plates you would be able to show with the registration of the vehicle that you owned them and were not stealing them. Personal safety might be an issue though.

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    That would not avoid a trespass charge or suit. And as I understand it no individual actually owns license plates, the state does. And the risk of a dangerous confrontation might be significant. – David Siegel Mar 5 at 15:58

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