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Is it illegal to remove a VIN number?

Posted by Neil Shouse | Feb 19, 2020 | 0 Comments

porsche vin number

Yes, it is illegal to remove a VIN number. Doing so can violate state law. It is also a violation of federal law. There are, however, some exceptions that can apply.

Under federal law, removing a VIN number is a felony offense. A conviction can carry up to:

  • 5 years in jail, and
  • $250,000 in fines.

States can have their own law against removing a VIN number. For example, California has several. The most severe carries up to:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail, and
  • $25,000 in fines.

VIN numbers can be legally removed in some cases. These exceptions may include:

  • removing a VIN number was necessary for repairs, and
  • the defendant owns a scrap yard and was destroying the vehicle.

What is a VIN number?

A VIN number is a Vehicle Identification Number. There is at least one on every motor vehicle. This includes:

  • cars,
  • trucks,
  • buses,
  • motorcycles,
  • trailers,
  • flat beds,
  • mopeds, and
  • scooters.

VIN numbers were standardized in 1981. Since then, all motor vehicles sold had to have a 17-character VIN.

The first 3 characters identify the company that made the vehicle.

The next 6 characters describe the type and model of the vehicle.

The last 8 characters identify the particular vehicle. They are similar to a serial number for a specific make and model.

Where are VIN numbers located?

VIN numbers can be located in several places in a motor vehicle. Most vehicles have more than one VIN number.

VIN numbers can usually be found:

  • where the dashboard meets the windshield on the driver's side of the vehicle,
  • on the jamb or post of the driver's door,
  • at the front of the engine block,
  • underneath the spare tire in the trunk,
  • in the well of the rear wheel on the driver's side, or
  • at the front of the frame of a car.

Does removing a VIN number violate federal law?

It is a federal crime to:

  • remove,
  • obliterate,
  • tamper with, or
  • alter

a vehicle's VIN number. The law also forbids removing identifying decals or stickers with intent to steal a vehicle. It also forbids covering those decals or stickers to hide them.1

Violating the law is a felony. Convictions carry up to:

  • 5 years in prison, and
  • $250,000 in fines.

There are exceptions to the law, though. It allows a VIN number to be removed in the following cases:

  • motor vehicle scrap processors or demolishers who are acting in compliance with state law,
  • anyone who has to remove or alter the VIN to make a repair,
  • anyone who restores or replaces VIN numbers in accordance with state law, and
  • the owner of the vehicle, acting under the Motor Vehicle Theft Prevention Act, removes or alters an identifying decal or sticker.2

These exceptions do not apply to people who knew that the vehicle was stolen.

What about state law?

Many states have their own laws that forbid removing a VIN number. For example, California has three:

  1. Vehicle Code 10750 VC,
  2. Vehicle Code 10802 VC, and
  3. Vehicle Code 10803 VC.

California Vehicle Code 10750 VC makes it illegal to intentionally:

  • alter,
  • change, or
  • destroy

VIN numbers.3

A conviction under VC 10750 is a misdemeanor. It carries up to:

  • 1 year in county jail, and
  • $1,000 in fines.

California Vehicle Code 10802 VC is more serious. It makes it illegal to intentionally tamper with a VIN in order to:

  • misrepresent or hide the identity of the vehicle or car part,
  • for the purpose of selling or transferring it.4

VC 10802 is a “wobbler” in California. It can be charged as either a felony or a misdemeanor.

If charged as a misdemeanor, a conviction carries:

  • up to a year in jail, and
  • a fine of up to $1,000.

If charged as a felony, penalties are higher:

  • 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years in jail, and
  • A maximum of $25,000 in fines.

California Vehicle Code 10803 VC also covers altered VIN numbers. It makes it a crime to:

  • purchase, or
  • possess

more than one vehicle or car part with altered VINs. To be liable under VC 10803, the buyer or possessor has to intend to:

  • sell,
  • resell,
  • transfer, or
  • dispose of the vehicle.

They also have to know that the VIN was unlawfully altered or removed to be liable.5

VC 10803 is another “wobbler” offense.

If pursued as a misdemeanor, a conviction can carry up to:

  • 1 year in jail, and
  • $1,000 in fines.

Felony charges for possession of vehicles can carry:

  • A jail sentence of 16 months, 2 years, or 3 years, and
  • A fine of up to $30,000.

Felony charges for purchasing vehicles with an altered VIN can carry:

  • A jail sentence of 2, 4, or 6 years, and
  • $60,000 in fines.

Legal References:

  1. 18 U.S. Code 511.

  2. 18 U.S. Code 511(b).

  3. California Vehicle Code VC 10750.

  4. California Vehicle Code VC 10802.

  5. California Vehicle Code VC 10803.

About the Author

Neil Shouse

A former Los Angeles prosecutor, attorney Neil Shouse graduated with honors from UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School (and completed additional graduate studies at MIT). He has been featured on CNN, Good Morning America, Dr Phil, Court TV, The Today Show and Court TV. Mr Shouse has been recognized by the National Trial Lawyers as one of the Top 100 Criminal and Top 100 Civil Attorneys.

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