When Richard Martinez bought a beautiful two-tone 1959 Chevrolet Corvette for $50,000 in 2016, he was over the moon knowing that he finally purchased his dream car. Martinez brought the car home to Kansas from the Indiana dealership he purchased it from, but when it came time to title the car, the Kansas State Police stepped in, sparking a legal battle that has been ongoing since 2017.
An issue with the car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) plate was grounds for civil forfeiture, according to authorities, as it qualified as "contraband" under Kansas law. Despite Martinez legally purchasing the Corvette and following his state's requirement for titling, his C1 was sent to an impound lot to await its date with the crusher. Five years later, Martinez's case is still pending, but a law passed earlier this year with Martinez's situation in mind looks to have finally saved his car.
Before we get into the law that effectively saved Martinez's Corvette, it's important to understand just what went wrong and how an owner who has committed no crime can be subject to seizure.
According to Kansas state law, a resident who purchases a vehicle from another state must have the vehicle inspected by the Kansas Highway Patrol (KPH) prior to a Kansas title being issued. This mandatory process is meant to inspect the vehicle's VIN plate to help cut down on the trafficking of stolen cars and parts.
While inspecting Martinez's Corvette, it became apparent to the inspector that there was a problem with the VIN plate: it was pop-riveted in place.
While this may not seem like a huge issue, it was the tip that indicated to the KHP inspector that the VIN plate had been removed at some point. From the factory, the VIN plate would have been attached to the hinge pillar with two Phillips head screws—you know, the ones that can be turned by a screwdriver instead of being permanently affixed in place with rivets—for cars produced between 1953 and 1960.
According to Martinez, the original VIN plate was removed and subsequently reattached during restoration. This is common among restored classics, nor is it federally illegal for this purpose. However, the KHP's issues specifically stem from the VIN plate being removed at some point during the car's lifetime, which is still illegal under Kansas state law.
That raised a red flag for the KHP inspector and Martinez's vehicle was marked for further review in accordance with the check procedure. The police then immediately seized the Corvette and moved it to an impound lot in Topeka, Kansas, where it is still being stored, awaiting final orders from Judge James Vano who is presiding over the case.
What complicates Martinez's issue is that the car was not a complete number-matching vehicle. The C1's original motor had been replaced at some point, meaning that the VIN stamped on the engine block did not match the one on the chassis. Furthermore, the state police reported that there was an issue with the "secret" VIN stamping under the car. These secret VIN numbers are often used by law enforcement to aid in theft recoveries when other VIN stampings are obliterated or replaced. On Martinez's Corvette, this stamping is on the frame rail visible from underneath of the car using a mirror (you can see a few examples of the C1's "secret" VIN here).
Still, Martinez says that the FBI confirmed that the vehicle was not stolen, so what's the big deal?
According to the KHP, Martinez's C1 Corvette—the exact one that he wanted since he was a teenager—is considered to be contraband specifically because the VIN had been removed and reinstalled for restoration prior to his ownership. And as such, Kansas law calls for the car to be destroyed.
These issues have led to the KHP not being "satisfied" that the vehicle contained no stolen parts, a term which Samuel MacRoberts of the Kansas Justice Institute says is "unconstitutionally vague."
MacRoberts is the litigation director for the Kansas Justice Institute, a non-profit, public-interest litigation firm that fights government overreach in Kansas. While the firm is not directly involved in the litigation, it filed an amicus brief with Kansas prosecutors last year to express its belief that the state's enactment of civil forfeiture against Martinez is unjust.
Kansas prosecutors haven't named Martinez as an at-fault party. The defendant is listed as "1959 Chevrolet Corvette, VIN#J59S103191," and Martinez is, by the admission of the state itself, "an innocent owner" in the matter.
“When the government knows someone is innocent, they shouldn’t use their power and resources to take their property," MacRoberts said. "Kansas’ forfeiture laws are to blame. The United States and Kansas Constitutions do not permit the government to acknowledge a person’s innocence, on the one hand, and then with the other, declare the innocent person’s property ‘contraband’ and take it.”
This doesn't appear to have been the first time that such an issue has come up. A post from 2010 on the Antique Automobile Club of America forum describes a second-hand experience that specifically calls out Kansas law for requiring the original rivets to be reused, else the vehicle be investigated whether it fits the state's definition of contraband.
In February, state legislators crafted a bill that would help owners like Martinez who find themselves in legal limbo. The bill effectively removed the VIN inspection requirement from vehicles with the model year of 1960 or older, allowing owners to use the bill of sale and state title application as proof of ownership. It was officially signed into law in March and became effective last month.
On July 13, Martinez went back to court. Representatives from the Kansas Highway Patrol and the Kansas Department of Revenue were present at the trial and agreed that since HB 2595 is effective as law, Martinez should have his car returned to him and titled.
While this is a huge step in the right direction, Martinez still hasn't had his dream Corvette for more than five years. The once perfectly restored car had an estimated $28,000 in damage from sitting in the impound lot, including signs of impact damage, cracks in the fiberglass body, and damage to trim. Meanwhile, Martinez has accrued $30,000 in legal bills. The bench notes for the case indicate that the damages incurred by Martinez are limited by statute at $20,000, so he still may not be made entirely whole by the time the trial ends, but he should at least have his car back.
Vano called for all parties to file their final supplemental pleadings to their closing arguments to address the changes to the law before the end of the month, and Martinez is returned his car without reasonable delay. Martinez says that despite all of the headaches, he's ready to throw a party at the thought of finally getting to bring his C1 Corvette home.
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