Legalese — Abandoned Motor Vehicles

How many times have you been driving down the highway and you’ve seen a car on the side of the road, just sitting there?  Sometimes it looks like it has been sitting there for quite some time.  What happens to that car?  What happens to all cars that are abandoned?  When does the law consider them abandoned?

The law defines an abandoned motor vehicle as one that has been left by the owner or the owner’s representative (or the person to whom the owner lent the car – the rules regarding stolen cars are different) for a period of time.  How long that is depends upon the circumstances of abandonment.

If you leave your car at a repair shop, and you haven’t come to get it or called after it, after thirty days  the car is considered abandoned. 

If it is the side of the street or other public property, then it becomes abandoned after five days and when “it reasonably appears to a law enforcement officer that the individual who left such motor vehicle does not intend to return and remove such motor vehicle.”  This language is there because if you drive to your Mother’s house for Thanksgiving, say, and park your car outside of her house and then don’t move it for another week because you are too busy sleeping off your food coma, your car is not abandoned.  Clearly, you have just parked it and will drive it home at the end of your visit.

If the road the car has been left on is a part of the “state highway system,” then a law enforcement officer can have the car immediately towed away if it poses a threat to “public health or safety or to mitigate congestion.”  In other words, you don’t have to leave a car on the side of the road for five days if it is a hazard or blocking traffic.

If you have your car towed somewhere because it broke down, and then you go 30 days without paying “all reasonable current charges for towing and storage,” the can is abandoned.  Same goes for having it towed to someone’s private property.  OR even if you drive it to someone’s private property and just leave it there. 

So what are those neon orange or pink cards you see on the windows of cars on the side of the road?

The law requires that if a police officer sees a car left unattended, that officer has to do a vehicle check to make sure that the car does not have an injured or incapacitated person in it, and to make sure that the vehicle itself does not pose a danger.  Once that is done, the officer fills out a form, and detaches the bottom of the form (the card) and leaves it on the vehicle. 

What can you do if someone abandons a car in your property?  Do you have to leave it in your driveway for 30 days?  The answer is no – you can have it towed, but there are rules.  First, you have to notify – in writing – the local law enforcement agency.  You have to tell them the location of the vehicle, the VIN, tag number, and type of car within three days of removing the car.   Then you have to ask the police to tell you whose car it is.  Within seven days of moving the car, you have to notify the owner by “certified or registered mail or statutory overnight delivery” where the car is, the fees associated with removal and storage, and the fact that it will be deemed abandoned 30 days after the removal. 

So then what? If the owner doesn’t come get it and pay the associated fees, you have to file a notice with the Department of Revenue according to their regulations.  Then, once you have ascertained whose car it is, you have to put a notice in the paper that is the county legal organ in the place where the owner lives.  This ad should run for two weeks.  You can get a lien on the vehicle for the costs of removal, storage, and the costs associated with the procedure. 

Once the vehicle has been deemed “abandoned,” meaning it isn’t stolen, and no one has claimed it or paid off the lien, then you can foreclose on the lien.  This is a legal procedure in which you can sell or obtain ownership of the car.  It is like how the bank gets the house if they foreclose on the mortgage – you get the car if you foreclose on the car’s lien.  It’s a fairly complicated procedure, and you would probably need the help of a lawyer to do it right, but it can be done.

Interestingly, there is an exception for the owners or operators of a paid private parking lot located within 500 feet of an establishment which serves alcoholic beverages.  If so, you can’t remove the car or put a boot on the tire between midnight and noon the following day.  This is obviously to encourage people to find a designated driver, take a taxi or an Uber, or get a ride from a sober person if they are drunk.  People are much more likely to find alternative transportation if they aren’t worried about having to pay hundreds of dollars to get their cars back from the impound lot.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.  No lawyer can advise you about your case without hearing the details of your personal situation.   

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