State begins used car policy
Drivers must now pay fines induced by a car’s previous owner
Used-car buyers beware!
The state Judiciary has quietly instituted a new policy that requires buyers to pay any outstanding parking fines incurred by the previous owner of the vehicle.
How to avoid registration woes
Before buying a used car, find out if it has a registration stopper. Information on vehicles registered in any of the state's four counties is available at www4.honolulu.gov/mvrtitleinq. You must have the vehicle's license number and the last four digits of the Vehicle Identification Number. Prospective buyers can also call the Motor Vehicle Information Processing Section at 532-4325.
Source: State Judiciary
The policy is based on a 1993 law that officials cannot remember ever being followed.
Since Sept. 12 on Oahu and August on the neighbor islands, the state has been holding drivers responsible for parking infractions accrued by their vehicles' previous owners. In dozens of cases, buyers have not been able to renew vehicle registrations.
And the options for owners are few -- either pay the fine, get the car's previous owner or owners to cover it, or file an application for default judgment to dispute the merits of the citation. To request a judgment, though, the owner must post an appearance bond equal to the parking violation fees against the vehicle.
If the court rules the citations were legitimately issued, the bond is used to cover the overdue parking fines.
State Judiciary spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa said the state will be getting word out on the policy change next week, with a press release and information on its Web site. She stressed the agency is just following the law. "If members of the public aren't happy, they should contact their legislators," Kitagawa said.
That is what Honolulu resident Bob Webster did when he heard about the policy after trying to register his car.
Webster bought a used Buick Regal in June 2004 and was stopped from renewing its registration earlier this year because of a $65 parking citation issued to its previous owner. He was able to get a clearance in April but was told the fine would have to be covered before his registration would be renewed again in 2006.
"I was outraged that I would be held responsible for something that somebody else did," said Webster, who has been arguing with state Judiciary officials for more than four months about the policy. "How can they hold me responsible?"
The law says that when a car's owner fails to pay a traffic violation, "the court shall cause an entry to be made in the motor vehicle's record" to prevent the vehicle's registration from being renewed.
The traffic code elaborates on this, saying a stopper will be put on "the defendant's registration for parking violations."
Kitagawa said an employee brought the rule to light earlier this year, and officials started work on implementing it.
She could not say whether the law was ever followed. But she did say clearances had been regularly issued for several years, allowing car owners to renew their registrations without paying for a previous owner's violation.
Susan Pang Gochros, the state Judiciary's department chief of intergovernmental public relations, said prospective buyers should inquire into whether a used car they are looking at has a registration stopper.
But, Webster pointed out, it takes 45 days for a traffic violation to become delinquent and spur a stopper on a vehicle's registration.
In 45 days, he joked, the car could have been sold to any number of people.
Webster received letters indicating that Judiciary officials are thinking about pushing for an amendment to the law. Kitagawa would not comment on that.
The law "requires the court to cause an entry to be made in the motor vehicle's record when a traffic infraction assessment has not been paid," wrote Judiciary staff attorney Lynn Inafuku in a Sept. 22 letter addressed to Webster. "Unfortunately, compliance with that section sometimes results in situations like yours."
She added, "That is why we believe that the statute may need to be amended to address similar situations from occurring."
On Sept. 29, Inafuku said in a letter that the state Judiciary's administration has "already decided to submit legislation" to change the law. "The Judiciary believes that such action best addresses issues involving registration stoppers," she wrote.
Thomas Keller, the administrative director of the courts, also told Webster in a Sept. 13 letter that the state Judiciary will "study this issue to determine if any laws should be amended." Keller did not return a call for comment Friday.
Meanwhile, Kitagawa said, the state is trying to set up a dedicated hot line to field questions about the new policy. She asked that residents wait until the line is created before calling for information.