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Illegally registered cars draw responses

Readers take both sides over a recent column about Californians who register their vehicles out of state.

September 17, 2003|Jeanne Wright | Special to The Times

My recent column about California residents breaking the law by registering their vehicles out of state to save money drew heated responses from readers and requests for information on how to report these scofflaws to authorities.

Many of the two dozen-plus e-mails about the column came from readers angry at residents who are cheating the state out of registration fees at a time of budget woes. California loses millions of dollars a year in fees because of residents who illegally register their vehicles out of state, said California Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Beam, who heads the agency's program to crack down on such offenders.

Beam's efforts to curb the loss of vehicle registration fees is part of a statewide enforcement program run by the CHP and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Reader Doug Todd wrote: "This has always been a sore point with me.... I know several people where I live that are guilty of this illegal activity."

Vehicle registration fees are considerably higher in California than in neighboring states, so some residents concoct schemes to register their vehicles elsewhere. And California's fees will be even higher after Oct. 1, when the percentage charged on the value of a vehicle purchased will increase from 0.667% to 2%.

Reader Ralph Wenzel of Westminster, among others, complained that the cost of registering and insuring a car in California is exorbitant: "I don't blame the folks who flout these prices and restrictions any more than I blame the businesses which are relocating to Arizona and Nevada to avoid the ludicrous workers' comp

Another reader, John Kordich of San Pedro, wrote: "It's quite obvious to me why the good citizens of California would not comply with California's vehicle registration laws. Our public servants in Sacramento are using the vehicle registration tax as a cash cow."

But reader Roy Williams said he was upset that people could get away with this. He complained that his efforts to notify authorities of illegal registrations went nowhere.

"I have a couple of neighbors who have lived in the area longer than me (I moved here in 1976), and they still have their Oregon plates," he wrote.

But agencies insist that they do take the problem seriously and pursue complaints against California residents whose vehicles are illegally registered out of state.

DMV spokesman Armando Botello explains that it takes four months from the time a report of an illegal registration is made before the vehicle's owners are notified by mail and the case is turned over to the California Franchise Tax Board for collection of fees and penalties.

From July 2001 to June 2002, Botello said, the DMV received 2,000 reports of California residents owning and driving vehicles registered in other states.

Rick Godfrey, a senior deputy with the Ventura County Sheriff's Department in Thousand Oaks, said that when he gets a report of an illegal registration, he goes to the owner's home to warn that he or she can be cited for failing to register the vehicle properly.

"I tell them, 'I will come back and check on you,' " Godrey said. If they don't comply, they face a very substantial fine, he said.

He has never had to go back a second time and issue a ticket, he said.

Under provisions of the California Vehicle Code, residents who buy vehicles with out-of-state license plates for use here must apply for registration and pay license and registration fees within 20 days of making the purchase.

The law also requires people who move to California to register their out-of-state vehicles with the DMV within 20 days of establishing residency or accepting employment in the state.

In addition, DMV rules state that Californians are prohibited from importing, purchasing or leasing a new vehicle from another state, unless the vehicle was manufactured for sale in California and the Environmental Protection Agency label has certified that the vehicle has California smog equipment.

Frank Torres, acting sergeant with the Long Beach Police Department's traffic division, said violators of the out-of-state registration law could receive "fix-it" tickets that require them to register their vehicles properly and show proof to police. Or officers can issue citations that require payment of $91.

Some people will pay the fine but continue to keep the vehicle illegally registered out of state, authorities said.

Faced with the cost of fees and insurance in California, some drivers apparently are willing to take the risk of being caught again, Torres said.

Here's how to report vehicles that are owned by California residents but illegally registered in other states:

Notify the DMV in Sacramento by calling (916) 657-6718. Or write to: Department of Motor Vehicles Registration Correspondence, P.O. Box 825341, Sacramento, CA 94232-5341. Reports can be made to the CHP, as well as to police and sheriff's departments.


Jeanne Wright responds in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail:

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