I recently finished working on a pro bono forfeiture case. The short story is that a guy puts a new engine and forks on a 1970s Harley Davidson in California in 1991. He registers it in California, and they give it a new VIN because the new motor serial number doesn’t match the frame. This is a common practice for motorcycles.
My client enters the picture in 1992 or 1993, when he buys the motorcycle. He registers it in California and operates it for years with no issues. He moves to Massachusetts and registers it with no problem. In 2004, he moves to Arizona to be closer to his children and grandchildren.
When he takes the bike to the Arizona MVD in 2007 (he didn’t ride it for a few years), the inspection officer notices the California VIN is different from the manufacturer VIN code and wants the bike to be checked out by a specialist. My client complies and brings the bike back for another inspection a few days later. This specialist is an Arizona Highway Patrol officer, and he decides the bike may be contraband and seizes the motorcycle.
When I met the client, the motorcycle had been in impound for months. I was confident that I could get the motorcycle back; after all, my client had a mountain of evidence proving that he bought the motorcycle in good faith and that California had applied a new VIN to the motorcycle. Other states would be required to recognize that VIN, right? Also, it would be pointless to take away a man’s motorcycle of over a dozen years, right? Not in Arizona.
The contraband statute is so incredibly broad that the Judge ordered the motorcycle be destroyed. The state argued two things: 1) that the California VIN was invalid because it altered the manufacturer’s VIN, and 2) that the forks may have been stolen in the 1980s.
Unfortunately, the burden of proof is on the owner to prove the state is wrong. California destroys MVD records after five years when no foul play is suspected, so it was impossible for my client to obtain the original California records. Ironically, that was due in part to the fact no foul play was suspected (in my opinion, correctly so).
We argued that California did its own investigation twice (when the new VIN was applied and when the bike was transferred to my client), and we brought up the fact Massachusetts had no problem with the motorcycle. How could Arizona, after nearly twenty years, be in a better position to determine if parts on the bike were stolen? Another frustrating aspect of the case was that everyone agreed that Arizona does things no differently when applying a state VIN to a vehicle.
After a trial and many motions, including a motion to reconsider that almost turned the tide, the state convinced the judge that we didn’t prove the forks weren’t stolen and didn’t prove the California VIN was sufficient. How could we? How does someone prove motorcycle forks weren’t stolen? Prove to me that your thirty year old lawnmower wasn’t stolen. You can’t. A receipt could be for an identical (but different) set of forks.
There’s a reason why the state should always have the burden of proof. They have massive resources. It’s the state’s courts.
In the end, the State of Arizona destroyed a man’s prized possession not because it was dangerous, not because it was going to be returned to the rightful owner, not because the man had done anything wrong, and not because the motorcycle had been used in a crime.
I think the implications of the ruling are terrifying.