When Richard Martinez bought a beautiful 1959 Chevrolet Corvette for $50,000 in 2016, he was about to learn that he had finally bought his dream car. Martinez brought the car home in Kansas from the Indiana dealership he bought it from, but when it came time to name the car, the Kansas State Police intervened, sparking a legal battle that has been going on since 2017.
A problem with the vehicle identification number (VIN) was a cause for civil confiscation, according to authorities, because it is considered “contraband” under Kansas law. Although Martinez legally purchased a Corvette and followed his state’s requirements for title deeds, the C1 Seah was sent to a holding area to await her appointment with the ripper. Five years later, Martinez’s case is still pending, but a law passed earlier this year to put Martinez in mind appears to have finally saved his car.
Before we get into the law that effectively saved the Corvette Martinez, it’s important to fully understand what went wrong and how an owner who has committed no crime can be forfeited.
According to Kansas law, a resident who purchases a vehicle from another state must have the vehicle inspected by the Kansas Highway Patrol (KPH) before a Kansas title is issued. This mandatory process aims to check the vehicle’s VIN plate to help reduce smuggling of vehicles and stolen parts.
While inspecting the Corvette Martinez, it became clear to the inspector that there was a problem with the VIN plate: it was screwed into place.
While this may not seem like a big deal, it was the advice that indicated to the KHP inspector that the VIN panel had been removed at some point. From the factory, the hinge shaft VIN plate could have been attached to Phillips head screws—you know, those that could be operated with a screwdriver rather than permanently held in place with screws—for cars produced between 1953 and 1960.
According to Martinez, the original VIN plate was removed and later reinstalled during the restoration. This is common among restored classics, and is also federally illegal for this purpose. However, KHP’s problems stem specifically from removing the VIN plate at some point during the vehicle’s life, which is still illegal under Kansas law.
This raised a red flag for the KHP inspector and Martinez’s car was flagged for further review as per inspection procedures. Police then immediately seized the Corvette and moved it to a holding warehouse in Topeka, Kansas, where it is still stored, pending final orders from Judge James Fano who is presiding over the case.
What complicates Martinez’s case is that the car was not a perfect match vehicle. The original C1 engine was replaced at some point, which means the VIN stamped on the engine block does not match the engine on the chassis. Moreover, the state police stated that there was a problem with the “secret” VIN stamp under the car. These secret VIN numbers are often used by law enforcement to aid in theft recoveries when other VIN seals have been obliterated or replaced. On the Corvette Martinez, this seal is located on the frame rail that can be seen from under the vehicle using a mirror (you can see some examples of the C1’s “secret” VIN here).
However, Martinez says the FBI confirmed that the car was Not Stolen, so what’s the big deal?
According to KHP, the Martinez C1 Corvette—exactly the one he’s wanted since he was a teenager—is considered contraband precisely because the VIN was removed and reinstalled for restoration prior to his ownership. As such, Kansas law calls for vehicle destruction.
These problems have left the AK not “convinced” that the car does not contain stolen parts, a term that Samuel MacRoberts of the Kansas Institute of Justice says is “unconstitutionally vague.”
MacRoberts is the director of litigation at the Kansas Institute of Justice, a not-for-profit public interest litigation firm that fights government abuses in Kansas. While the company is not directly involved in the lawsuit, it filed a friendly note to Kansas attorneys general last year to express its belief that the state’s civil forfeiture legislation against Martinez is unfair.
Kansas prosecutors did not name Martinez as a wrongdoer. The defendant is listed as a “1959 Chevrolet Corvette, VIN # J59S103191,” and Martinez is, by the state’s own admission, an “innocent owner” in the matter.
MacRoberts said, “When the government knows that someone is innocent, they should not use their power and resources to seize their property. The expropriation laws of Kansas are the cause. The constitutions of the United States and Kansas do not allow the government to recognize someone’s innocence, on the one hand, and then on the other hand, proclaim The property of an innocent person is “smuggled” and taken.”
This does not appear to be the first time such a problem has arisen. Post from 2010 on Antique Car Club of America The forum describes an indirect experience that specifically invokes Kansas law to require that the original bolts be reused, otherwise the vehicle is checked as to whether it fits the state’s definition of contraband.
In February, state lawmakers drafted a bill that would help landlords like Martinez who find themselves in legal trouble. The bill effectively removed VIN check requirements from vehicles of the 1960’s or older, allowing owners to use a bill of sale and a state ownership application as proof of ownership. It was officially signed into law in March and took effect last month.
On July 13, Martinez returned to court. Representatives from the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Kansas Department of Revenue attended the trial and agreed that because HB 2595 was in effect as law, Martinez must return his car to him and name it.
While this is a huge step in the right direction, Martinez hasn’t had his dream Corvette for more than five years. The fully restored vehicle had an estimated $28,000 in damage from sitting in the holding yard, including signs of collision damage, cracks in the fiberglass body, and piece damage. Meanwhile, Martinez has accumulated $30,000 in legal bills. The bench notes for the case indicate that Martinez’s damages are limited by law to $20,000, so he may not have been fully completed by the time the trial ends, but he should at least have his car back.
Fano called on all parties to submit their final supplementary and closing arguments to address the changes to the law before the end of the month, and Martinez returned his car without reasonable delay. Martinez says that despite all his headaches, he’s ready to throw a party on the idea that he’ll finally bring his C1 Corvette home.
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