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The jurisdiction is Washington State, the specific situation is the purchase of a vintage automobile that had been abandoned. The vehicle was not running at the time, and had no title or registration.

I had the Department of Licensing run a search which came back with no results, but they only claim to go back 7 years. The next step is to trailer it to the State Patrol for a VIN inspection, and this is the part that is causing trouble...

I have made a good faith effort on multiple occasions to schedule an inspection through their website, but due to shut downs of this service during Covid and chronic staffing shortages that they mention on the site, there has NEVER been an appointment available whenever I have checked. This has gone on for several years now. Their website doesn't support getting your request into a queue, and I don't have the computer skills to automate the process of checking for openings so I have almost resigned myself to not trying anymore.

Question: Given that the state has mandated that vehicles be registered, and that to be registered one must have a title, and that to obtain a title in the event of loss/abandonment a vehicle must be inspected, what is the state's obligation to provide a means to comply when every reasonable attempt has been exhausted? In other words, at what point does the government's inability to effectively administer a program become an unreasonable restriction on personal liberty?

Supplementary:

  • Is there a legal concept or term for this, or for a valid defense strategy that could be made if reasonable and good faith attempts to comply could be demonstrated? (i.e. a Latin phrase comparable to "mens rea", etc.)

What other remedies might be available?

  • I have considered proceeding with the restoration, and drafting an "Affidavit in lieu of registration" document detailing my numerous attempts to follow the process, and indicating a sincere desire to comply, but my concern would be having the vehicle impounded if/when I get pulled over.
  • I have even considered asking local law enforcement to just issue me a citation so that I might appear in court and plead for an opportunity to be given the means to comply. (i.e. move to the head of the line...)
  • I have also considered writing to my state representative. Are there any other preemptive actions that might help get this situation "unstuck"?
  • Is there a statute of limitations for asserting ownership that might alleviate my concerns about proceeding with the project?
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    Actually, you might want to explain what you mean by "purchase of an abandoned vehicle". Who did you purchase it from, how do they know it was abandoned, how do you know it wasn't stolen?
    – user6726
    Feb 18, 2023 at 18:47
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    @user6726, good question, establishing this fact is actually the very purpose of the inspection! (ownership in doubt) The local police were not helpful at all in regard to running the VIN through their database to determine this. (P.S. I bought it from the landowner who claims it was left there. Tabs were 20 years old, and the vehicle was minus the engine and overgrown with blackberry vines.) Feb 18, 2023 at 19:06
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    Has every legal remedy been exhausted? In my experience there are many ways to get those VIN inspections done. I mean the first thing they'll argue is that you're fixating on one method and not availing yourself of other methods. Secondly, courts aren't much impressed with "I only tried it on the internet, and did not try any other method". The internet does not exist to them, or is a curio at best. Feb 19, 2023 at 3:59
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    Have you simply gone to the department of vehicle registration, taking whatever documents you have (including the old tabs) and tried to register it? Feb 19, 2023 at 16:29
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    When it comes to government offices, I find that I get the best service appearing in person and if that's not an option, calling on the phone. Talking to a human, explaining your situation, and asking what specifically to do next will often yield a number of options that you didn't know existed or that aren't available via the website. The last time I needed something, the clerk saved me weeks of time by suggesting options I never would have considered (like visiting a different office two counties away).
    – bta
    Feb 21, 2023 at 2:19

3 Answers 3

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The state of Washington does not have an absolute requirement that vehicles must be registered. What it has is RCW 46.16A.030 (2):

(2) It is unlawful for a person to operate any vehicle on a public highway of this state without having in full force and effect a current and proper vehicle registration and displaying license plates on the vehicle.

Therefore you already have a means to comply with the law: simply refrain from operating this vehicle on any public highway of the state of Washington. In other words, don't drive or park it on public roads; keep it on private property. (In many states, "operating" includes parking; I could not immediately find out whether this is the case in Washington.)

So now your question instead becomes: "What is the state's obligation to make it possible for me to lawfully drive this particular vehicle on the public roads?" And the answer to that is much more clearly, "none". Driving in general is considered a privilege and not a right, so your "personal liberty" is not at issue. The state is not doing a good job of providing a service which they generally do provide, which is certainly annoying, but is not a legal issue, and does not give you the right to break the law.


I have considered proceeding with the restoration, and drafting an "Affidavit in lieu of registration" document detailing my numerous attempts to follow the process, and indicating a sincere desire to comply, but my concern would be having the vehicle impounded if/when I get pulled over.

Yes, it probably would be.

I have even considered asking local law enforcement to just issue me a citation so that I might appear in court and plead for an opportunity to be given the means to comply. (i.e. move to the head of the line...)

You would still lose, unless the judge is particularly sympathetic.

I have also considered writing to my state representative.

That's a better idea - at least it doesn't involve violating the law. And legislators usually do make some effort to help constituents when they have problems with government offices. However, if the issue is simply that the State Patrol is overloaded with work, there may not be much they can do.

Is there a statute of limitations for asserting ownership that might alleviate my concerns about proceeding with the project?

The requirement to have an inspection before getting a title seems to be from RCW 46.12.530 (2): "The department may require additional information and a physical examination of the vehicle or of any class of vehicles, or either." So there is no exception written into statute.

The implementing regulation looks to be WAC 308-56A-150. There are several criteria listed for when inspection is required, and I'm not sure which would apply to your vehicle. It may perhaps be "(g) ownership in doubt (WAC 308-56A-210)" which applies when you do not have the documentation described in WAC 308-56A-265. Or it may be the catchall "(c) One on which the identification number needs verification as requested by the department, county auditor, or authorized agent". You'll have to research this further.

There doesn't seem to be any exception based specifically on the long time period that the car has been unregistered, or the fact that no theft is known to have been reported in the past 20 years, or anything like that.

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    Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Law Meta, or in Law Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Dale M
    Feb 18, 2023 at 22:18
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    Please read chat before voting on answer. This answer is controversial.
    – Joshua
    Feb 19, 2023 at 5:53
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A Hail Mary play I'd try is to file a lawsuit to quiet title.

"To quiet a title" is to remove stains on a title and produce a clear and unambiguous title as a matter of court judgment.

To do that, your goal is to convince the judge that you have done every reasonable thing to notify any potential owner or stakeholder. You usually run some classified ads in designated legal newspapers also. Or might get city hall to tell you everyone who has owned the house since the car's model year, and then hire a detective to do a search for those people. Any specific parties who can be identified, serve them notice.

But a bunch of real properties got foreclosed and put into the hands of courts around 2009-13 and put to auction under court oversight. If the donor property was one of them, it's certainly the case that the foreclosure assigned ALL personal property on the property to the new buyer with no recourse of any past owners. If that happened, that's as far back as you need to go. Dig up those cases and look at the court paperwork.

The point is, suing does a couple things for you: First it gives you the right of discovery, meaning you can seek information from parties and compel answers via subpoena. I would certainly hit the state patrol with an interrogatory asking questions about whether and how VIN inspections are available in the state. Second, the drop of the gavel is an "I win" button at the DMV.

To win a "Quiet Title" action, you must satisfy the judge that any stakeholder has had their chance to be notified. Once the gavel drops, that's it.

Like I say, foreclosure + court supervised auctions have the same effect, generally.

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  • Good answer. It doesn't directly address the root question about government's obligation to enable compliance, but it provides an excellent suggestion. And one I can relate to having published a notice to creditors as executor of an estate. To your other comment, their apparent only method of scheduling inspections is via the website. I haven't confirmed for certain, but that matches most organizations attempts to push as many functions as possible to the web. Feb 21, 2023 at 2:40
  • Good answer, but one should hire an attorney to do this, rather than trying to do this yourself.
    – DrSheldon
    Feb 21, 2023 at 4:32
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Of course you must do whatever you have to to deal with the situation, so hire an attorney to advise you of the consequences. You might try this (8 slots available at this moment), and enjoy the drive. The law simply says what procedure you have to follow, and there is no law mandating that the agency must devote sufficient resources to making it actually possible to get an appointment. This is not unrelated to the fact that the state constitution mandates that the education system be financially supported by the state, but it took years and Supreme Court argumentation to force that to happen. If you want to sue WSP to force them to schedule you, you ought to hire an attorney. Alternatively, if you know someone, they may be able to cut through the bureaucracy. A somewhat more aggressive move would be to hire an attorney to write a formal letter demanding an appointment.

The courts will probably recognize that they should perform the required service. At the same time, they will also recognize that there exist limitations on what is possible, such as the dearth of inspection sites and dearth of staff to perform inspections. Part of the problem that you encounter is due to specific decisions, namely what the online scheduling software can do. Apparently, you have to catch them at the moment that the next week's slots become available. This is basically an arbitrary number in the software, so why not let reservations be open-ended? But it's not clearly illegal for the government to make a definite decision like "we only schedule one week in advance, reset on Tuesday". The courts will defer to these administrative decisions unless they are clearly unreasonable or contrary to law.

In light of the further details of history in OP, RCW 46.55.230 was apparently not followed.

any law enforcement officer having jurisdiction, or any employee or officer of a jurisdictional health department acting pursuant to RCW 70A.205.195, or any person authorized by the director shall inspect and may authorize the disposal of an abandoned junk vehicle...(2) The law enforcement officer or department representative shall provide information on the vehicle's registered and legal owner to the landowner. (3) Upon receiving information on the vehicle's registered and legal owner, the landowner shall mail a notice to the registered and legal owners shown on the records of the department. The notification shall describe the redemption procedure and the right to arrange for the removal of the vehicle. (4) If the vehicle remains unclaimed more than fifteen days after the landowner has mailed notification to the registered and legal owner, the landowner may dispose of the vehicle or sign an affidavit of sale to be used as a title document.

The procedure is: call the police to start the process, then they shall provide the relevant information, whereby the rest of the procedure can be followed.

If we start from the position that the landowner owns the vehicle (a starting-point stipulation, not a legal fact), then RCW 46.12.650 may be relevant. The "owner" is supposed to (in this case) sign a release of interest document approved by the department, give the most recent evidence of ownership to the person gaining the interest in the vehicle (hire an attorney), do the odometer form and report the sale. The tricky part is that the landowner is probably not the legal owner, on the assumption that he didn't do what was necessary to lay claim to the vehicle.

The practical solution is probably to call a lawyer. There is a chapter on abandoned property, and you're at the mercy of the court / bureaucracy if you don't follow those rules.

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    Or if Congress does not do something about the budget / debt, does the economy just collapse? There is no legal solution here, only political ones. If you can't get RealID because of a governmental mess (and supposing for some reason that you don't have a passport), you can't sue, and you should write to your congressman (which is why the deadline was extended).
    – user6726
    Feb 18, 2023 at 18:44

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