The Status of Vehicle Titles in Pennsylvania
By: Bryan W. Shook, Esquire
BUYING A VEHICLE WITHOUT A TITLE
In the realm of car collecting, one thing can cloud a bargain more than anything else, a vehicle with no title. The statement “no title” or “sold on bill of sale only” is usually enough to make most potential purchasers turn and run, FAST. But should it really scare us away? Perhaps, but not without good reason.
A vehicle sold without a certificate of title is a vehicle sold with questions.
Before you purchase any vehicle without a title, you must ask yourself the following.
- Why doesn’t the seller have a title to transfer to me?
- Is the vehicle listed in either the NMVTIS or the NICB VinCheckSM?
- How am I going to get a certificate of title in my name?
Why doesn’t the seller have a title to transfer to me?
The most obvious question is why does the seller not have a title to the vehicle? There are many potential answers to this question that should be asked prior to negotiating for the purchase of this vehicle.
For instance, the vehicle could be missing its title because it was previously salvaged and somehow escaped destruction (i.e. crushing); or worse yet, the vehicle could be stolen. These are reasons to RUN, FAST!!!
Often the case, however, is that the vehicle was abandoned, so to speak, by the last owner who held a certificate of title. This usually happened when the vehicle had fallen into such a state of disrepair that the condition and its value at the time made the title and registration of the vehicle a moot point. Accordingly, whoever acquired the vehicle from the last person may not have requested a transfer of the title for these, or similar reasons.
The answer to this first question often tells you 90% of what you need to know. Trust your instinct. If the story sounds fishy or otherwise unbelievable; it probably is.
Is the vehicle listed in either the NMVTIS or the NICB VinCheckSM?
Before you purchase a vehicle without a title you should run the VIN through two sources. The first is an initiative of the United States Department of Justice located at http://www.vehiclehistory.gov/ and known as the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS). The NMVTIS is designed to thwart the registration of stolen vehicles and prevent title fraud. An important note, however, when researching the NMVTIS for collector cars, is that the system is still in its infancy and relies upon information uploaded from individual states. Results of the NMVTIS include where the vehicle was previously registered and if it has ever been reported stolen or had any other title issues in the past. With respect to antique and other older collectible vehicles, it is possible that some “older” thefts may have slipped through the cracks. So, don’t rely too heavily on the results of the NMVTIS search if it comes back with no record found. This is why it is important to also check the second source.
The second source that should be checked is the National Crime Insurance Bureau’s (NCIB) VinCheckSM. This database includes information regarding whether a vehicle has been reported stolen. The link to search the NCIB database is https://www.nicb.org/theft_and_fraud_awareness/vincheck .
Importance of an Adequate Bill of Sale
If you choose to go ahead with the purchase and buy the vehicle, it is highly recommended that you have the seller give you a bill of sale for the vehicle. It is important that the bill of sale identify the vehicle by year, make, model and VIN. The seller should state something to the effect that they are delivering you the absolute rights of possession and ownership of the vehicle. The seller should also state that to the best of his/her knowledge the vehicle is not stolen and how they acquired the vehicle and from whom. Of course the bill of sale should also indicate the date of the transaction and full contact information for both you and the seller. This will ensure compliance with 13 Pa. C.S.A. § 2401 and will assist you in the acquisition of a certificate of title down the road.
How am I going to get a certificate of title in my name?
The current laws in Pennsylvania contemplate only scenarios in which certificates of title are transferred with every vehicle transaction. Therefore, by extension, the law fails to contemplate a scenario in which a person or entity would acquire a vehicle or vehicles for which no owner can produce and accordingly transfer a certificate of title.
Similarly there appears to be no law, regulation or procedure, formally in place, for the motioning of the Court for a declaration of ownership of a motor vehicle so as to permit Penndot to issue a new certificate of title to memorialize the current owner and allow for registration of the automobile. Further it is important to note that Penndot has unfortunately purged many of their old motor vehicle records, including ownership and registration records. As a result, Penndot openly states that “[v]ehicle record information is available for the past 10 years only.” Penndot Form DL-135 (Rev. 9-10). Obviously this practice of record retention leaves open many scenarios whereby an owner cannot acquire a certificate title because Penndot has no record of ever issuing one.
What can be done to acquire a title? One solution is to Petition the Court of Common Pleas in Pennsylvania. Attorney Bryan Shook can assist you with this. He can be reached at BShook@dplgaw.com.
Legal History Lesson:
Vehicle titles in Pennsylvania are often the most misunderstood aspect of vehicle ownership. This is because of historically misinterpreted and misunderstood notions of what exactly constitutes “ownership” of a motor vehicle in Pennsylvania.
Under the Pennsylvania Motor Vehicle Code, an “owner” is defined as:
A person, other than a lienholder, having the property right in or title to a vehicle. The term includes a person entitled to the use and possession of a vehicle subject to a security interest in another person, but excludes a lessee under a lease not intended as security.
75 Pa. C.S.A. § 102.
The Superior Court has described titles and ownership this way;
[i]n Braham & Co. v. Steinard-Hannon Motor Co., 97 Pa.Super. 19, 23 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1929), though it involved the interpretation of earlier legislation concerning motor vehicles, the following language of Judge, later President Judge, Keller is nonetheless pertinent and applicable to The Vehicle Code of the present day: ‘It is clear that the primary purpose of the Act of 1923, supra, was to protect the public against the theft of automobiles and their resale by the thief, and to facilitate the recovery of stolen automobiles. It was a police measure, and was not designed to establish the ownership or proprietorship of the car, * * *.’ And at page 25, of 97 Pa.Super. Judge Keller said: ‘It follows that the act does not provide nor intends to provide that the ‘certificate of title’ shall determine the absolute ownership of the car, or alter or affect in any manner the actual ownership of the vehicle and the relations of the persons interested in it. It only requires registration by the person entitled to its possession and in control of its operation. The certificate is not a warrant of ownership or muniment of title as usually understood in the law. It may be relevant evidence in establishing such title.
Weigelt v. Factors Credit Corp., 174 Pa.Super. 400, 404, 101 A.2d 404, 406 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1954)
The idea that a vehicle may have both a legal and an equitable owner was recognized by the Commonwealth Court in Dept. of Trans. v. Walker, 136 Pa.Cmwlth. 704, 584 A.2d 1080 (1990). The Court in Walker stated that “[i]t follows that Section 102 of the [Vehicle] Code does not provide nor intend to provide that title to a motor vehicle shall determine absolute ownership of such. In fact, our research reveals that in Pennsylvania, the certificate of title constitutes no more than some evidence of ownership.” Id., 584 A.2d at 1082, citing Semple v. State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., 215 F.Supp. 645 (E.D.Pa.1963). See also Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Duncan, 972 F.2d 523 (3d Cir.1992) (under Pennsylvania law, a state-issued certificate of title is in no way controlling on the question of ownership).
The courts of Pennsylvania look to see who it is that in fact possesses the attributes commonly associated with ownership. Aetna Casualty & Surety Co., at 526. The elements of ownership that Pennsylvania looks at are the elements of use, benefit, possession, control, responsibility for, and disposition of the automobile. Wasilko v. Home Mut. Cas. Co., 210 Pa.Super. 322, 326, 232 A.2d 60, 62 (Pa. Super. Ct. 1967).
In summation, although you may not have received an actual certificate of title when you purchased your vehicle, you still most likely own the vehicle. This is barring any type of theft in the vehicle’s past or another “owner” stepping in and challenging your interest while asserting that their interest is legally better than yours.
With this in mind, the motioning of the Courts for a declaration that you are the owner of the vehicle, and therefore entitled to a certificate of title from Penndot is often your best bet in getting the vehicle properly titled and on the road. The declaration of ownership is possible if you have actual legal ownership of the vehicle. The court will, to the extent that it is able, extinguish the rights and interests of all others, whom you are able to find and notify of the proceedings, in the vehicle. This will ultimately allow you to register and enjoy your vehicle without having the issue of not having a title hanging over your head and clouding your “ownership” of the vehicle.
Finally, always remember that a vehicle sold without a certificate of title is a vehicle sold with questions. This, however, does not absolutely mean that the vehicle can never again be titled. It does however underscore the need for the exercising of enhanced due diligence throughout the transaction.
The above information is in no way meant to be construed as anything more than general information. The above information is not legal advice. The author encourages you to seek the help of an attorney any time you are contemplating the purchase of a vehicle without a certificate of title. Further THE AUTHOR ASSUMES NO RESPONSIBILITY AND ACCEPTS NO LIABILITY FOR ACTIONS TAKEN BY USERS OR READERS OF THIS DOCUMENT, INCLUDING RELIANCE ON ITS CONTENTS. It is strongly encouraged that you seek legal counsel for all matters related to a collector or antique vehicle purchase given the amount of money involved and the rarity of the vehicles. This information is not intended nor does it create an attorney-client relationship.
This page includes links for your assistance only. This page is in no way associated with the NCIB page or the NMVTIS.
Bryan W. Shook, Esquire is a devoted automobile enthusiast. Attorney Shook would be glad to help you with any vehicle title issues you may have including lost titles, no titles, bill of sale transactions, etc. Attorney Shook is a collector and as a collector knows the ins and outs of the hobby, let Attorney Shook’s legal knowledge of the collector car hobby work for you. Attorney Bryan Shook can be reached at 717-975-9446 or by email at BShook@dplglaw.com.