Judgments of Ownership - Moveable Property
The Code of Civil Procedure provides that Justices of the Peace handle suits for the possession or ownership of moveable property, and the judgments of ownership of vehicles shall be recognized by the Office of Motor Vehicles in accordance with the provisions of Chapter 4 of Title 32 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes. See CCP art. 4912. However, many people assume that a Justice of the Peace Court can issue a judgment recognizing them as the owner of a vehicle where there has been no legal transfer of the vehicle to them. Ownership, as defined by the Civil Code, is the right that confers on a person's direct, immediate and exclusive authority over a thing. Normally, ownership of a moveable is either gratuitous (like a donation) or for money, as in a contract of sale. Some things don't require any real formalities other than a handshake and an exchange of money accompanied by the actual delivery of the moveable property. However, titled things, such as cars and motorcycles, do not fall in this category. In fact, it is illegal to sell a titled vehicle if you don't have a title to it. The Office of Motor Vehicles has extensive criteria they use to determine whether someone has obtained ownership of a vehicle. Usually, OMV requires that the title be properly filled out, signed and notarized and that there be a separate Bill of Sale or Act of Donation, also properly filled out, signed and notarized.
The Common Case
Most often, people are referred to the Justice of the Peace because they have purchased a car from a used car dealer and it never conveyed title, or they purchased a car from an individual and the seller did not give a title but did give a bill of sale. Sometimes people have not been diligent in how they signed the bill of sale and/or title and now they can't find the seller. People should be very careful when dealing with anything that needs to be titled, registered and insured. Essentially, if it's something that is going to be used on a public street, highway or waterway, you need to be cautious. If you are getting a “good deal” there's usually a reason for a good deal. Before you purchase a vehicle from out of state, it would be wise to check with your local OMV office to determine what kind of paperwork they will need to process a change in title. However, with a little diligence on your part, you can usually obtain a judgment of ownership that will allow you to proceed forward and obtain a formal title to the vehicle. First and foremost, the moveable in question can not exceed $5,000 in value.
In accordance with Chapter 4 of Title 32 of the Louisiana Revised Statutes, the Office of Motor Vehicles requires Justices of the Peace to pre-approve cases involving title to vehicles. This is done by having the person seeking title obtain a Physical Inspection Report, Form 3515, from a state-authorized law enforcement officer. Some Louisiana State Troopers are authorized to issue the form. In the greater Baton Rouge area, you may seek inspections at the office located at SSSS Independence Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70806. If you drive a vehicle to their office it must be insured. They will come out to your property if requested. Essentially, the officer inspects the car, verifies it's VIN, describes the car, and sometimes runs a check on the vehicle to see if it's been reported stolen. Once Form 3515 is obtained, you must bring it, along with all other documents you have, to the Justice of the Peace, where he will collect all information and forward it to the Office of Motor Vehicles for internal review and investigation. It usually takes about 30 days for the OMV to contact the Justice of the Peace with additional information. Since obtaining a Judgment of Ownership is a “last resort” kind of approach to obtaining title, often the OMV will ask that the applicant make additional efforts to resolve the problem, such as contacting the last known buyer by certified mail, obtaining a lien release from a finance company, or checking with another state's motor vehicle agency, etc. Ultimately, if the vehicle is lien-free, is worth less than $5,000, and there is sufficient proof to show the applicant purchased or was given the vehicle, normally a Judgment of Ownership is rendered. Court filing fees apply as if a new suit is being filed. The applicant then takes the judgment back to the OMV or other authorized title issuer and completes the process as if he had a bill of sale. All sales tax must be paid, which also may include penalties and interest, and in order to obtain a plate, insurance coverage must be shown.
There is no law that allows someone to “claim” abandoned vehicles. Louisiana is not a “finders keepers losers weepers” state with respect to things that are titled, like cars, motorcycles, trailers, mobile homes, and ATV's. You can't just “take” a car or motorcycle or trailer and make it yours. There is no provision in the law that allows you to do that, with the exception of 3 or 10-year acquisitive prescription.
Acquisitive Prescription is addressed in Civil Code Articles 3489 – 3491. Ownership and other real rights moveables may be acquired either by a prescription of 3 or 10 years. One who has possessed a moveable as an owner, in good faith, under an act sufficient to transfer ownership, and without interruption, for three years, acquires ownership by prescription. The key is that language referring to an act sufficient to transfer ownership. There has to be some action, normally a notarized bill of sale or act of donation, purporting to transfer the vehicle to the buyer. One who possesses a moveable as an owner for 10 years acquires ownership by prescription. Neither title nor good faith is required for this prescription. The bottom line? If you can prove you have possessed a vehicle for 10 years, then you can apply for a judgment recognizing you as the owner. If not, about all you can do is have the vehicle towed off your property. Law enforcement has the authority to have the vehicle towed off the property and then the tow truck operator shall store and may dispose of the vehicle pursuant to the Louisiana Towing and Storage Act.
Car Repair Shops
The same kind of notion of abandoned vehicles applies to car repair shops. Sometimes someone will bring a car to a repair shop for repair and abandon it there or will have repairs made but never come back to pay for the repairs and pick up the car. Shop owners call me to see if they can somehow obtain title to the vehicle. The law already provides repair shops with a possessory mechanic's privilege or lien, meaning that as long as they maintain possession of the car, they can hold at as collateral to ensure payment for their services. The usual remedy for getting paid is to sue the owner, ask that the privilege be recognized, and also ask that the car be seized and sold at public auction to satisfy the debt. However, the problem sometimes faced is that the mechanic shop can't locate the owner or doesn't know who the real owner is. Plus, the costs of using an “absentee” owner is fairly expensive. The problem for the court is two-fold. First, there is no law that says a court can simply “give” the car to the mechanic shop. Any action to have the shop's debt recognized as valid would have to be contradictory, meaning the owner would need to be served so as to give him an opportunity to defend the claim. Second, we don't want to be in the business of giving a shop a car worth much more than the actual cost of repair. Another option is to proceed under the Louisiana Towing and Storage Act, LSA-R.S. 32:1711 et seq. Repair shops can utilize LSA-R.S 32:1726 to sell the car. In general, these statutes allow a licensed storage or repair facility to obtain title or sell cars if the proper procedure is followed. Refer to OMV for additional information.