Can the Repo Man Do That? The Law on Repossessions. – Alabama Consumer Protection Attorney Judson E. Crump 31


About a million cars are repossessed each year in the United States.  Many of these are illegal, though most debtors (and a lot of repo agencies) don’t know it.  So just what makes a repossession illegal?

Breach of the Peace.

A secured creditor can only repossess their collateral if they can do so without any “breach of the peace.”  The Uniform Commercial Code doesn’t define “breach of the Peace,” but the Alabama Supreme Court has.  And they’ve adopted a pretty common sense rule: if the repo man violates a criminal statute, then they’re breaching the peace.

Despite this clear and wise rule, repossessions that breach the peace happen all the time.  These really bother me because I believe that they show a fundamental disrespect for the human dignity of debtors.  How?  Because it should be obvious that you can’t commit crimes in order to repossess a vehicle.

“But it’s my job!” says the Repo Man.

“We have a right to get paid!” says Title Max or the car dealer.

OK let’s consider that.  My job is to win lawsuits.  What if I went into the law offices of my opponents and burned up their files.  “I’m just doing my job.”  Right?  Of course not.  A crime is a crime.  No matter how poor or black or redneck or worthless you think your debtors are.

So they cannot break any criminal law.  What does this mean for you?  Here’s some examples:

  • They cannot enter the property of someone who doesn’t owe money if that person tells them to go away or tries to block their entry (that’s criminal trespass).  They can enter your property.
  • They cannot break a lock, cut a chain, or enter your house.  That would be burglary.
  • They cannot intentionally damage your (or anyone’s) property.  If you have a marble statue of St. Theresa of Avila in your front yard, and they drive right over it, they are breaching the peace.  This is called criminal mischief.
  • They cannot touch you or be violent in any way (that’s Assault).
  • They cannot threaten violence (that’s Menacing).
  • They can’t harm your pets (animal cruelty).
  • They cannot curse you, insult your virtue, or use profanity (harassing communications).
  • They cannot use false pretenses to get the keys to your car.  Or to get access to someone else’s property.

In other words, missing a payment on a car note does not mean that repo men can commit crimes against you with no penalty.  Despite what many creditors, banks, and “pro-business” politicians may think, a person does not become less than human just by falling into financial trouble.  As I said, crimes are crimes.

Conversion.

They have to give your stuff back.  If they don’t pack it up and send it to you or let you come and get it, then they’re stealing your stuff.  If they want to charge you $40 to come and get your own property that they have taken, that is conversion.  They can’t do that.  If they take valuable things or cash, then you can sue them for that.

Trespass & Property Damage.

There are two types of trespass: trespass on real property (land and homes), and trespass against personal property (cars, boats, books, TVs, everything but land and homes).

Secured creditors do have a privilege to trespass on your own property and to travel on common property (like roads and public parking lots).  However, they are not generally allowed to trespass into residential property of people who don’t owe them anything.  For instance, if my car is in my back yard, the repo man cannot drive through the neighbor’s yard and drag it out over his grass.

Trespass against personal property generally means physical damage.  If they unnecessarily damage or destroy your personal property, then they can be held liable for it.

But beware of one thing: it is also a crime to conceal collateral with the intention of hindering your creditors.

So What If They Break the Law?

A lot of people call me with tales of repossession misbehavior, and they think that if you can prove that the repo man broke the rules, they get their car back without paying for it.

That’s just not true.

Unless the repossession occurred a) when you were not in default, or b) after you’ve filed bankruptcy, you can’t get the car back without paying.

The penalty for an unlawful repossession is cash damages.  Generally, they have to pay for whatever damage their misconduct caused, and in some cases they have to pay extra for violating certain laws.

A secured creditor gets to set off these damages against what you rightfully owe.  So unless you’ve almost paid off your loan or their conduct was just really bad, then a wrongful repossession suit probably will not put any cash in your pocket, though it can shield you from a lot of future debt.

Example 1: You owe $10,000 on your car.  It gets repossessed, and the repo man recklessly drove across your yard and crashed into your boat, causing $5,000 of damage.

They sell the car at auction for $3,000, leaving you with a deficiency balance of $7,000.  If you sue them for trespass, they can counterclaim for the contract deficiency, which is $2,000 more than your trespass damage.  So the court enters a judgment for them in the amount of $2,000.  You reduced your debt, but that doesn’t help you very much.

Example 2. Granny owes $5,000 on a $30,000 mobile home.  She bought it at high interest with $2,000 down 15 years ago.  A repo man comes out with a 5th wheel and tries to haul it off, and in so doing, he pushes Granny onto the ground and knocks open a sewage pipe, causing rotten S— to fly all over poor Granny.  This is a breach of the peace situation that allows for statutory damages of $12,000, plus some emotional distress damages for being such a jerk to a sweet old lady.  Granny will get a cash judgment.

 


About Attorney Judson E Crump

I am an Alabama consumer credit attorney. I specialize in defending people from their creditors. I fight (and usually win) credit card and collection lawsuits. I fight unjust predatory lenders, foreclosures, and I help people recover from credit reporting errors and identity theft. I live in Mobile, Alabama, and I have a wife and 3 children. I love reading and growing things.


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31 thoughts on “Can the Repo Man Do That? The Law on Repossessions. – Alabama Consumer Protection Attorney Judson E. Crump

  • channon adams

    I paid my loan and title max lied said I only made one well I have all my paper work so much fraud coming off that contract west texas towing the owner wouldnt look at my paper work called me a stupid bitch cause he had to leave my car n property cause I did stuff legally he didnt like that lol funny shit I have a law suit going after title max they need to b shut down thank you

  • David

    Title max called an toldme to come to there office in semmes when i got there they had me wait to talk to the manger when i did get to talk with the manger an it was said to me i had till wensday of the following week to pay my note so as i was leaving .my daughter called and said a tow truck was hooking up the car that was at my dads house were we are living .and then they gave me 4 different numbers to pay to get it back an when i brought it up to them they said the car was sold online the week before ..and they wouldnt tell me the name of their boss are # and when i called they keep saying one are the other manger wasnt in but i could call on a unknown number an get threw an they would hang up.andy personal property that was in there no one seems to know were it went .i got a lettter zaying to come pick it up and when i went up there they blamed it on the towing company an then the towing company blamed the auction place i was lied to every step an my tools for my job that i was supposed to start that monday was taking ..is there any thing i can do to get these thugs from doing someone else like this ..

  • april Roberson

    3 months ago I was involved in a high speed chase with a guy trying to repo my truck. This lasted 45 min during which he repeatedly tried to wreck me and he rear ended me and threw bricks and busted my back and front windows. I was on the phone with the cops Tue entire time. I pressed charges and he was arrested. He was the mechanic for the car lot where I bought the truck. Do I have a case against the car lot?

  • Stephenie Lane

    Repo man damages or vehicle. We paid what the manager to rod, half of the damages to their vehicle. For they took responsibility for half. They release the vehicle back to us, but refuse to pay for our damages as they said stated they would. I’m in Al, what can i do? They said what we agreed on basically had no barring on our damages???

  • April harris

    My car was paid. My next payment was not due for 25 days. I separated from my husband and then closed the insurance on the truck and removed the tag. He was going to try and pay it off. The loan, insurance, tag, and contract were all in my name alone. They repossessed the vehicle for lack of insurance within 24 hours. They then we’re contacted by me and the repo agency and told not to let anyone including my husband take anything off of or out of that car. The car lot actually called my husband and told him to come clean the car out. Do I have a case?

  • Ishama Blackshear

    I work for the postal service and my car was repo out of their parking lot did they have the right to do so if its private property? Mind you they stole my personal property out of the car when it was cleaned out by their workers…

    • Attorney Judson E Crump Post author

      Ishama,

      Generally, they can go to your place of employment to repossess your car, if you are in default on the contract. They cannot steal your personal property from the car, though. They must make it available to you at a reasonable time if you demand your stuff back. Even if your contract says that you have to pay a reasonable fee for storage, it should never be more than $75 or so.

  • Meeca

    I just received my car back from the dealer 25 days ago. I only had it a month before it needed a major repair. The dealer took 40 days to repair the intake. My payment is due on th 5th and I have until the 15th before it is considered late. On th 13th th dealer sent a repo man to my home saying I was 2 months behind. However during the 40 days he had it he told me not to make a payment. Again i have had it back 25 days so how can I be 2 months behind? Also, im not late until after th 15th. It is just th 13th. Is that legal?

  • Ms. Shonta

    I owe a title loan from a year ago. They tried to repo it last and i jumped in my truck. The tow truck tried to latch me and i tried to drive away. In the process my mothers house was damaged. I got away. Tonight i was in my vehicle on the phone and I felt a jerk and felt the truck move, (from the same company and people from last week), then seen a woman run in front of my car. I blew the horn and waved at her. She told them i was in the vehicle and they said no i wasn’t and told someone to get a flashlight. During this time they continued to lift my truck up with me in and the whole time the police watched. I was moved halfway to the street even after they were told i was in the truck. Is this illegal? I reside in Ohio.

    • Attorney Judson E Crump Post author

      Ms. Shonta,

      I am not licensed to practice in Ohio, but it doesn’t take an Ohio bar admission certificate to figure that there’s something way wrong with a repo man hauling a car off while you’re in it. That is incredibly dangerous; I mean, what if you’d fallen out? That’s just crazy. In Alabama (which ain’t the most consumer-friendly state in our union), that would most definitely be illegal – what we call a “breach of the peace.” I’m pretty sure that in Ohio, a repo man can’t do crap like that.

      So you need to call an Ohio auto fraud lawyer ASAP. Go to http://www.consumeradvocates.org and use the Attorney Search form to find a bona fide consumer protection lawyer in your town.

      Best of luck.

  • Joseph Weah

    Hi. I just have a couple of questions in regards to what may be considered legal in your opinion on repossessing a vehicle. My wife is a GA resident but I am an Alabama resident due to a circumstance that made it necessary for me to move in with my parents in order to provide care for my father who recently suffered a stroke. The town my wife lives in borders the Alabama state line so there are many people who either live in one state and work in the other and vice versa.My wife fell behind in her car payments due to unexpected other expenses related to my father’s stroke but was in communication with the lender and making negotiated payments each month as she could. Last Sunday she awoke to find that the car had been repossessed overnight without any warning and with no attempt by the towing company to inform her they were taking the vehicle which had all of her personal belongings in it including her work I.d and no attempt to ask for the cars keys which we would’ve voluntarily gave to them since we were aware that the payments were behind and we don’t deny our responsibility for the debt regardless of the circumstances that led to us getting behind. My questions are 1. Since my wife lives in a gated community is it considered legal for the tow company to enter the property to reposess her vehicle despite clearly posted signs alerting anyone entering that it is private property and anyone who is not a resident or has prior permission to enter will be trespassing and could face prosecution? 2. Since they did not alert her they were taking the vehicle is it legal for them to now charge her to retrieve her personal property inside the vehicle? They have now informed her that she must pay $25 in addition to any storage fees and set an appointment to retrieve her belongings. Also the lender has sent a letter titled notice of intent that says if we don’t redeem the vehicle within 10 days it will be sold. The letter states it must be redeemed no later than the 15th which would satisfy the 10 days according to their date of the letter which was dated the 5th. The problem is that we did not receive the letter until 2 days ago which was the 10th, depriving us of half of the time we were supposed to be given to remedy the situation. Is that legal and\or customary?

    • Attorney Judson E Crump Post author

      Joseph,

      First, I can’t give you specific legal advice, as I’m not licensed to practice in Georgia, and Georgia law will govern sales trasactions that take place on Georgia soil.

      When it comes to repo agents charging storage fees for personal property, the law is sort of a grey area. They don’t have the right to just keep your stuff, but they can generally require you to come get it at their location during business hours. On the face of it, $25 doesn’t seem like a terribly unreasonable fee. If the repossession was lawful in the first place, then even if they’re not entitled to that $25, are you really going to sue them for it? If you wanted to do so just to prove the point, I understand. But if it was me, I would pay the $25 to get my stuff back ASAP. Then if you want your money back, you can consider taking them to small claims court for it.

  • CW2 (ret) Steve Pope

    Sir, my name is Steve, I am a recently retired (20 years) Army veteran and live in Huntsville Alabama. My family has recently been through a rough few years with my transition to civilian life and we had no choice but to have to file chapter 7. Now im not complaining about the process, only the way my vehicle was taken from us. Our bankruptcy just finalized July 13 and today August 15 we had the misfortune of meeting a repo man in our driveway. We were well aware that we were going to have to surrender our vehicle so this was not a huge surprise but how we were treated shocked us. As the wrecker was lifting the back of our car, I calmly walked out and said to give me just a second to remove all of my wife’s personal possessions and to remove the window vents that I had bought her for her last birthday. These window vents were not expensive, just double sided tape held them on but since it was a birthday gift, I wanted to remove them with the hope of someday getting the same model car and putting them back on. Since these window vents were not permanent and did not come with the vehicle, and did not damage the vehicle when removed, I thought this would be a reasonable request. At this point, the repo man went into a wild 10 minute tangent about that its against Alabama law and he would not let me remove them in which I ignored based on my belief that it didnt come on the car when I bought it. I maybe wrong but I still did it. Now, the repo man is becoming more and more hostile, screaming obsencities, and pointing at me, and I still kept my cool by the grace of God. Now what really got me steamed was when he went into another 10 minute rant about how I am a terrible soldier, a dead beat, scum, cant pay my bills, and with no honor. Normally in this situation, I would have stomped his guts out but this was broad daylight with my kids, their friends, and several neighbors outside at the time, all standing there watching and I had to show restraint, and I am still not sure I made the right decision. When this was all over, I had two kids crying, my wife in tears, and a neighborhood in shock. Needless to say, this situation has left some scars. To set the record straight, I am a multiple decorated combat veteran that has served my country proudly and honorably. After 20 years of military service, 3 wars, and to many sacrifices to list, I feel betrayed by the very people I and my family has sacrificed to protect. We dont deserve this kind of treatment and I hope someone can make them accountable for their actions. Sir, I dont know if there is anything you can do but if this guy did this to me, I can only imagine what he does to everyone else. Sorry for the long story and Im sure I left a lot of things out but this is all I can fit right now. Thank you for your time.

    • Attorney Judson E Crump Post author

      Steve,

      That sounds horrible. For one thing, they shouldn’t be repossessing any property after you file bankruptcy at all. Have you spoken to your bankruptcy lawyer about this? I would be happy to discuss your situation in more detail. You can call me at 251-272-9148.

  • jim

    i let a cousin put his truck in my name and take out a title loan on it . he has failed to pay the title loan and has hidden the truck what can the title loan company do to me

  • Cheryl Lee

    What rights do I have if a repo man comes onto the wrong property? In other words, what if he’s at the wrong house, and I believe he’s a burglar with intent to harm me?

  • Jenny Churchill

    Hi. Praying someone can help me. I live in NH. My car was repoed from my work now 3 days ago. I handed my keys over (now stranded at my job 45 min away from home.) walk inside call bank pay them the $540. Bank tells me now call REPO co to make appt to pick up my car. I do so and am told “ok well bring a tow truck cause your car is now. It moving under its own power” I said “WTF are u talking about I watched your three minions drive my car away” now the REPO company is lying saying the never DROVE MY CAR that they towed it. Um that’s is a LIE and I have at least three witness at my work that that’s a lie. Didn’t get even out of my works road and they broke down on the side of a major road not even on my works property and then call a flatbed and loaded up and take it away is what they tell me that they’re not responsible for anything it’s on me normal wear and tear and they’re not doing shit the bank tells me I need to wait 7 to 10 days to hear from their legal team so I’m out of car after I paid for it they broke it and now what I missing more work and I got a wait a week and a half !? This cannot be legal can it!?!?

  • Lakisha

    Hi was wondering if my vehicle is up for repossession but I made the payment to keep them from towing the vehicle but it takes 24 hours to clear the repo!! If in yard behind gate closed do they have a right to come on private property behind the gate and get vehicle???

  • Mark Oppie

    Dear Sir my 2009Ford F150was taken by South port repo approx one month ago. Thry tried to charge me $50 to get my stuff then hiked it to $75 because of my attitude(i wasnt being nice).when i asked them if the bank didnt pay em enough just to tow it. I read, read n reread what you said about conversion. I then read it to BUBBA the owner of southport n he said that it was untrue and that all the repo men charged to get ur stuff back. Time past where southport would not answer the phone and after a cupla weeks they answered n said the truck was returned to Navigator credit union in moss point ms with all my belongings in it. Navigator said the truck was taken to auction.and that southport was supposed to box my things up n return them to me . The auction company said there wasn’t anything in the truck and told me the same thing you n the bank said bout returning my stuff. It was a work truck and had alot of tools and my birthcertificates. Drivers licences. Imade a list of what i know for certain was in the truck(without embellishing) then got online to estimate the cost of replacing my stuff which came to $800. Please advise!!!I am thanking you in advance for any assistance you render me in not allowing those shysters to get away with this. I am markoppie@gmail.com

    • Attorney Judson E Crump Post author

      Mark,

      I can’t give you specific legal advice because you’re not a client of mine, but I can say that Repo men do charge bogus and arbitrary fees ALL THE TIME. Most of them actually believe that it’s perfectly legal. As pervasive as this practice is, rarely do people sue over it because the value of the property at stake is usually too small to justify a lawsuit. If they’ve only taken $200 of stuff, you’d have to pay just about that much to take them to court. So most people just don’t do that. Yes, this allows them to get away with bad behavior, but that’s the reality of things.