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Is it a crime for a repo man to accidentally repo the wrong car?

I'm sure at least occasionally they'd repo the wrong car. The bank (or whoever owned the loan) had already sent notices and tried other options. They had to do quite a bit of detective work to find the owner. The owner had also gotten plenty of notices in the mail and probably a visit from someone trying to collect, so they were already on the lookout. Simply by the law of averages, a couple of mistakes have to happen.

My question is

  1. What happens when a car that is legally owned by someone is "repossessed"? Is the repo man charged with theft?

  2. What happens to personal items in the car? For example, a laptop in a book-bag.

  3. How does the rightful owner go about getting the car back? Do they file a police report?

  4. Are there special statutes that protect repo men from honest mistakes?

There were several popular "repo shows" in the early 2000s. Most of them were staged, but I believe some showed real repos, at least at first. I believe most of the shows filmed in Florida or California. I don't doubt sometimes repo men played a bit fast and loose with the rules. Repo was generally the final option after notices and visits from collectors had failed.

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    The life of a repo man is always intense. - Bud.
    – D Duck
    Feb 20, 2022 at 22:02

3 Answers 3

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Is it a crime for a repo man to accidentally repo the wrong car?

Not unless the car was retained after the accidental repossession was discovered, and then, only by the person retaining it (as the repo man may have turned over the car to the creditor whose loan on a similar car is in default).

Generally speaking, taking property of another with an intent to permanently deprive the owner of the property of it is a crime only if one knows that the property is the property of another.

For example, if two people leave black umbrellas in an entry room and someone accidentally leaves with the wrong one, the taking of the wrong umbrella is not a crime.

Whether the repo man's assertion that he accidentally took the wrong car is credible is a question of fact to be determined at trial, if the prosecution doubts him. If he was supposed to repossess a 1936 Ford and he repossessed a 2021 Tesla, the repo man is probably going to lose and be convicted of theft. If he was supposed to repossess a white 2021 Tesla and he repossessed a different white 2021 Tesla in the same neighborhood with a license plate from the same state as the one he was supposed to repossess, he has a very good chance of prevailing.

However, once someone learns that they have taken the wrong property, they have a duty to return the property promptly to the owner upon request, and probably, to notify the owner (if the owner can be determined) and the authorities who were informed that a different vehicle was taken, promptly. Otherwise, the originally good faith mistake becomes theft.

If the repo man's explanation is convincing, he is not likely to be charged with theft, even though no special law applies. What makes the repo man special is that he did have permission from the secured car loan creditor to repossess it due to the secured car loan debtor's default by the Uniform Commercial Code. If he had taken the right car without a breach of the peace, the Uniform Commercial Code would have absolved him of liability and given him legal permission to do so.

If the repo had been of the right car, the creditor would have had a duty to promptly return the personal possession in the car in which it did not have a lien to the rightful owner. This conclusion doesn't change when the repo man accidentally takes the wrong car.

While the repo man's mistake was not knowing or intentional, it was probably negligent to repossess the car without carefully confirming the VIN number and license plate to make sure that he was repossessing the correct car. As a result, the car own probably has a claim against both the repo man (whose negligence caused the wrongful repossession) and the creditor (for whom he was acting as an agent to repossess the car) for any damages caused to the owner of the wrongfully repossessed car, including damages to the vehicle and damages from loss of use of the car and possibly damages for emotional distress caused by thinking that his car had been stolen or by missing a non-economic opportunity that he could have had if the car had not been wrongfully taken (e.g. if this caused the car owner to miss the funeral of the car owner's father).

The creditor and the repo man probably have insurance policies in place that cover legal defense of such claims and also economic settlements or money judgments entered on that kind of claim.

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    If they have to check the VIN couldn't that make putting a fake VIN plate on the dash a protection against the car being repoed? Feb 20, 2022 at 23:59
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    @LorenPechtel don't know about USA, but in most o the EU any police control on the road could catch discrepancy between car registration and displayed VIN. VIN plate is (usually) inside the car here, and using fake one equals using forged document - criminal offence. Guess most people would rather lose car than years of their life.
    – Mołot
    Feb 21, 2022 at 8:23
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    @LorenPechtel - Having to check the VIN (paint color, odometer...) means that if a parameter doesn't seem to match expectations, you just think twice. You are still looking for the car. A mistake isn't always the result of negligence, but a stupid, basic, avoidable mistake is. Feb 21, 2022 at 9:24
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    @Mołot: Not to overgeneralize here but one can argue that those who have been evading repossession are more likely to resort to these kinds of tactics. Also consider that not everyone makes perfect judgments with perfect information - plenty of people commit crimes for trivial benefits simply because they didn't think (or consider) that they would be caught. Your reasoning is sound but not everyone things things through as well as you did.
    – Flater
    Feb 21, 2022 at 10:23
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    @LorenPechtel If there is a serious suspicion of wrongdoing (e.g. the plate is right but the VIN is wrong), the VIN is found on multiple parts of the car (including the engine block) that can be examined. Also, if there is fear of liability, the creditor can have the sheriff do it following an order in a replevin action instead of acting without court sanction as a repo usually does.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 21, 2022 at 21:49
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The law generally allows a vehicle to be taken by the lender (or agent) in well-defined circumstances. Those circumstances generally include "having defaulted on the loan" and "the vehicle is pledged as security". It is conceivable that an agent may mistakenly seize the wrong vehicle (it's also possible that the "has defaulted" premise is incorrect). In that case, the car-owner has been wronged. However, the law of theft does not make the mistaken repossession a crime. See RCW 9A.56.020 for Washington:

(2) In any prosecution for theft, it shall be a sufficient defense that: (a) The property or service was appropriated openly and avowedly under a claim of title made in good faith, even though the claim be untenable

Hence it is not theft. The law only gives the lender title to the vehicle and not the contents, so you will gets your groceries, clothes, laptop etc. back, though exactly how isn't a matter of dictate under the law.

The practical procedure for retrieving the vehicle is fact-dependent, for example if you do have a loan on that car and there was a communications failure w.r.t. the payment, you call the bank (you know who took the car and why). If you are a complete and clueless stranger to this scenario (no idea that it was repossessed as opposed to actually stolen) you would call the police, who would then tell you (in California, because reporting is required) that it was repossessed, but not in Washington. In Washington, you would get a notice mailed to you, though it is more likely that when they checked the VIN they would return the vehicle post haste, before you get the notice.

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    They don't return possessions; they demand ransom for them. There are too many news articles of the law not being followed.
    – Joshua
    Feb 19, 2022 at 20:16
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In California, as is mentioned (although only a bit obliquely) in the answer by user6726 all repossessions must by law be promptly reported to the local police. Such a report will include the name of the repo agent and of the firm for which s/he works, the name of the client who asserts title (often the bank), the plate number, and the name of the person from whom the vehicle was repossessed. Thus the police will be able to respond to any query from the putative owner.

In a normal repo if there are personal possessions left in the car, they are supposed to be stored securely at the office of the repo firm, to be returned to their owner when the owner comes to claim them.

In the case of a mistaken repo (which I understand is quite rare, as repo agents are trained to check the license plates, usually have good memories for plate numbers, and know they don't get paid for incorrect repos) the repo agency is likely to seek out the owner and return the vehicle with the possessions fairly quickly once the firm realizes the error.

(Of course, the error may be a communication failure, such as a recent payoff, rather than getting the wrong car.)

There were a series of (I understand) reasonably accurate stories and novels about the actions of a repo firm by Joe Gores, known as the "DKA File" series. Many are based on actual repos that Gores did or heard of when he was a repoman before becoming a full-time writer.

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  • +1 for Joe Gores!
    – Jim Mack
    Feb 20, 2022 at 1:55

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