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Don’t Get Caught! Legal Risks of Removing a Car’s VIN

It is illegal to remove or tamper with a vehicle identification number (VIN) in most jurisdictions. The VIN serves as a unique identifier for each vehicle, and altering or removing it is considered a form of vehicle fraud. Doing so can result in severe legal consequences, including fines and imprisonment.
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C.L. Mike Schmidt Published by C.L. Mike Schmidt

What is a VIN Number?

According to AutoCheck, the vehicle identification number (VIN) is a distinctive code assigned to each individual automobile, serving as its unique identifier [1]. Consisting of 17 characters, including digits and capital letters, the VIN functions as the car’s fingerprint.

It encapsulates various details about the vehicle, such as its specific features, specifications, and manufacturer. Beyond mere identification, the VIN plays a crucial role in various aspects of vehicle management and administration.

A VIN displays the car’s unique features, specifications and manufacturer. The VIN can be used to track recalls, registrations, warranty claims, thefts and insurance coverage.

What Does the U.S. Justice Department Say About Removing VIN Numbers?

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, title 18, Section 511(a) outlines the serious offense of intentionally altering, removing, tampering with or obliterating an identification number linked to a road motor vehicle or its parts, constituting a felony [2]. However, Section 511(b) of Title 18 provides exemptions for individuals engaging in lawful activities that may inadvertently lead to the alteration or removal of such identification numbers.

It’s essential to note that legislative history clarifies that these exemptions are not intended to create opportunities for illicit operations like “chop shops,” as detailed in H.R. Report No. 1087 on H.R. 6257 during the 98th Congress, 2nd Session.

Section 511(c) of Title 18 contains the definitions for “identification number,” “motor vehicle,” “motor vehicle demolisher,” and “motor vehicle scrap processor.” The term “identification number” means a number or symbol that is inscribed or affixed for purposes of identification under chapter 301 and Part C of subtitle VI of Title 49 – U.S. Department of Justice

Under Title 49, Chapter 301, the Secretary of Transportation is authorized to establish motor vehicle safety standards. In compliance with this authority, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 115, pertaining to Vehicle Identification Numbers (VINs), mandates public VINs on various road vehicles, including passenger cars, multipurpose passenger vehicles, trucks, buses, trailers, and motorcycles (49 C.F.R. §§ 571.115 and 565.1 to 565.5).

Additionally, Part C of Subtitle VI of Title 49 (49 U.S.C. § 33101 et seq.) empowers the Secretary of Transportation to promulgate theft prevention standards, including parts marking requirements. These regulations, detailed in 49 C.F.R. Part 541, mandate component identification for specific vehicle lines, initially targeting high-theft passenger car lines from the 1987 model year onwards. Subsequent expansions in 1995 encompassed certain multipurpose passenger vehicles and non-high theft lines from the 1997 model year onwards.

What is the Penalty for Removing the VIN Number of a Vehicle?

Intentionally altering a Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) constitutes a misdemeanor offense under California law. This offense doesn’t necessitate a specific purpose behind the alteration. If you deface, alter, or destroy a VIN, or replace it with a different ID number not assigned by the California DMV, you can face charges for intentionally altering a VIN. The penalty for this misdemeanor can include up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Secondly, tampering with a VIN to facilitate misidentification may result in either a felony or misdemeanor charge. It is illegal to knowingly alter, counterfeit, deface, destroy, disguise, falsify, forge, obliterate, or remove a VIN with the intent to misrepresent the identity of a vehicle or its parts for the purpose of sale, transfer, import, or export.

This offense is considered a “wobbler,” meaning it can be prosecuted as either a felony or misdemeanor. As a misdemeanor, it carries a penalty of up to 1 year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. As a felony, the penalty increases to up to 3 years in county jail and/or a fine of up to $25,000.

The difference between these two crimes lies in the underlying intent. If you tamper with your VIN but do not somehow misrepresent it, then you will be charged with a lower-level crime. However, if you tamper with the VIN because you want to misrepresent it to sell or transfer the car or cart part, then you will be charged with a higher-level offense.

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