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John Doe's car was stolen, along with a copy of the key. The thief then sells the car and key to someone else. John Doe is walking down a sidewalk, and sees his car in someone's driveway. He checks the VIN, and it is indeed the same car. He was carrying another copy of the key (only one of his two copies was stolen, and he never took this copy off his keychain), unlocks the car, takes the new "owner's" belongings out and sets them on the ground, and drives home in his car. He had never reported the car as stolen. Is this legal?

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    Even if legal, it is certainly stupid, since the good-faith "new owner" is likely to report the car as stolen to the police. John may be able to sort things out in the end, but in the meantime, I hope he enjoys being on the receiving end of felony stops. Jun 30, 2022 at 4:29
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    @NateEldredge but how could the new owner report it as stolen when he should know that the purchase was illegal because he has no car title and the name on the title doesn't match with the deed of sale's seller's (thief's) name? Jun 30, 2022 at 4:38
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    @HarryMcKenzie a deed of sale is not required in Oregon. You just sign the title and report the sale to the DMV. Of course, the theif couldn't do this either unless he had the title and could fake John's signature. I'm not sure what's involved in reporting a sale, but I don't think the buyer would know if the seller didn't do it. If John kept the title and his driver license in the vehicle (not a good idea but people do it anyway), the theif could feasibly see the signature on the DL and forge one on the title.
    – Someone
    Jun 30, 2022 at 4:40
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    I would also wonder about the "setting the belongings on the ground". That's a pretty cavalier way to handle the property of someone who may well be another innocent victim of the thief / fraudster. If anything were to happen to it, would John be liable? Jun 30, 2022 at 4:47
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    @gnasher729: Being in the driveway might make the items slightly less vulnerable to theft, but not to other kinds of damage. Suppose among the items was an elaborate decorated cake. John sets it on the ground, and shortly thereafter, it starts to rain. This destroys the cake, with all its sweet green icing flowing down. Could the cake's owner recover from John, given that it took so long to bake the cake, and they'll never have that recipe again? Leaving a cake out in the rain could be considered negligent. Jun 30, 2022 at 14:43

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There's a good answer in this thread by Trap_Door_Spiders

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Assuming the car was really stolen, not "stolen" in the sense my friend borrowed it and never gave it back, you could absolutely recover the car. The reason you could, is because you can't steal your own property. Theft is very specifically the taking of ANOTHER's property. Here the property and the title to it has remained with you, because it was stolen. A thief never gets title in stolen property--it's called a void title. A void title is no rights at all as compared to a voidable title which has no rights against the true owner, unless you are subsequent transferee for value without notice (Bona Fide Purchaser).

Now we can even take this slightly further. Imagine our thief stole your car and now sold it to Hapless John and all the remaining facts are the same, can you still take the car? Yes, because title in property tracks from the seller of the property. You can only over transfer as good a title as you have in the property. So thief has a void title. When he sold Hapless John the car he transferred a void title, which is no interest at all. So when you see the car and take it back, Hapless John calls the police and reports it stolen too. As long as you could demonstrate it was stolen first, that's the end of the issue. Hapless John has to go find the thief and get his money from thief.

Now obviously this all assumes you see the car on say a street or whatever. If you saw it saw it in a driveway, you could end up being charged with trespass unless your state privileges the recovery of stolen property by peaceable means. You still wouldn't be liable for theft, because of the void title, but you can get the other charges.

All that said, you are better off having the police come and assist you. If you are even slightly wrong you get hit with the full force of the consequences. It's better just to have a police officer come and assist from a criminal liability stand point.

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    It's not illegal to steal it back, but to drive it home you would need to have kept up insurance on the stolen car and possibly ensured it was roadworthy, taxed, or licensed in accordance with the local law, not modified in a way that was illegal or voided your insurance, etc. Definitely better to call the police.
    – Stuart F
    Jul 1, 2022 at 10:13

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