In my capacity as small-town big-city lawyer I get lots of calls from people with problems outside the field of criminal defense. People seem to think that, because I have a law degree, I actually know probate law, or family law (I do know a bit, but don’t tell anyone) or landlord-tenant law. Either that, or they don’t know what kind of problem they have.
Often these callers don’t really have legal problems; instead of Atticus Finch they need Winston Wolf, or a good therapist. I do my best to help them myself or steer them in the right direction.
One of the recurrent questions I get deals with the purchase of cars: “I bought a car, and the dealer hasn’t given me the title. How can I get the title from him?” Non-criminal defense problem, right? Be patient, give the dealer another call, or talk to a civil lawyer of some type to put some heat on the dealer.
That’s what I thought.
Then this morning as I was browsing Texas’s theft statute, Penal Code Section 31.03 (we all need hobbies), I came upon this gem:
(7) an actor who purchases or receives a used or secondhand motor vehicle is presumed to know on receipt by the actor of the motor vehicle that the motor vehicle has been previously stolen from another if the actor knowingly or recklessly:
(A) fails to report to the Texas Department of Transportation the failure of the person who sold or delivered the motor vehicle to the actor to deliver to the actor a properly executed certificate of title to the motor vehicle at the time the motor vehicle was delivered; or
(B) fails to file with the county tax assessor-collector of the county in which the actor received the motor vehicle, not later than the 20th day after the date the actor received the motor vehicle, the registration license receipt and certificate of title or evidence of title delivered to the actor in accordance with Subchapter D, Chapter 520, Transportation Code, at the time the motor vehicle was delivered.
So if you receive a used car without a title and you don’t report the lack of a title to TxDOT and file evidence of title with the county, you may be presumed to know that the vehicle was stolen. Which means that you may get charged with stealing the car. While the presumption is probably not enough to convict you, it’s enough to get you arrested. This converts what at first looked like a communication problem, or at worst a petty commercial dispute, into potential criminal liability for the buyer.
There are more things in heaven, earth, and the Texas Penal Code than are dreamt of in your philosophy.