California has two laws that make intentionally or knowingly tampering with a vehicle identification number (VIN) a crime: Vehicle Code § 10750 VC and Vehicle Code § 10802 VC.
Here are five key things to know:
- 10750 VC makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally alter or destroy a VIN in any way.
- The penalties for violating 10750 VC are up to 1 year in jail and/or $1,000.1
- 10802 VC is VIN tampering to misrepresent the identity of the vehicle or part for the purpose of selling or transferring it.
- As a wobbler,2 violating 10802 VC can be a misdemeanor3 or a felony carrying 16 months, 2 years or 3 years in jail and/or up to $25,000.4
- 10802 VC is often charged with 10801 VC – operating a “chop shop” and/or 10803 VC – possession of multiple vehicles/parts with altered VINs.
Our firm’s lawyers include former prosecutors and cops. We now learn what we have used to defend clients accused of vehicle offenses and other California crimes.
To help you understand the laws on tampering with VINs, our California criminal defense attorneys discuss the following, below:
- 1. What is a vehicle identification number (VIN)?
- 2. Intentionally altering a VIN — Vehicle Code 10750
- 3. Altering a VIN for the purpose of misidentification – Vehicle Code 10802
- 4. Difference between Vehicle Codes 10750 and 10802
- 5. Penalties for altering or destroying a VIN
- 6. Defenses to VIN tampering charges
- 7. Related offenses to tampering with a vehicle identification number
1. What is a vehicle identification number (VIN)?
A “vehicle identification number” is the:
- motor number,
- serial number, or
- other distinguishing number(s), letter(s), mark(s), or information,
used to identify a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part or for the purpose of vehicle registration.5 All motor vehicles have a unique vehicle identification number (VIN), which appears on:
- California DMV vehicle registration paperwork, and
- a metal plate that is usually attached to the dashboard on the driver’s side of the vehicle.6
There is also a copy of the VIN in six or seven other places in the vehicle. Law enforcement uses these hidden copies to identify a vehicle when the public VIN has been altered or removed.7 Possible places for these copies of the VIN include the frame, engine, or body of the vehicle.
2. Intentionally altering a VIN — Vehicle Code 10750
California Vehicle Code 10750 PC makes it a misdemeanor to:
- intentionally deface, destroy, or alter a VIN, or
- place or stamp a VIN or other ID number on a vehicle except as assigned by the California DMV.8
3. Altering a VIN for the purpose of misidentification – Vehicle Code 10802
California Vehicle Code 10802 VC makes it a crime to:
- knowingly alter, counterfeit, deface, destroy, disguise, falsify, forge, obliterate, or remove a VIN
- with the intent to misrepresent the identity of, or prevent the identification of a motor vehicle or motor vehicle part
- for the purpose of sale, transfer, import, or export.9
The actual sale, transfer, import, or export does not need to be completed. As soon as you change the VIN for one of these purposes, you are guilty of violating Vehicle Code 10802 VC.10
4. The difference between Vehicle Codes 10750 and 10802
Both Vehicle Code 10750 and 10802 apply when you alter or destroy a VIN other than by accident. Section 10802 describes a larger number of wrongful acts than Section 10750. Though the biggest difference between the code sections is one of purpose.
Vehicle Code 10802 requires proof that you altered a VIN with the specific intent to misrepresent or hide the identity of the vehicle or part so that it could be sold or otherwise transferred.
4.1. How 10802 VC applies to chop shops
10802 VC was passed with “chop shops” in mind.11 Chop shop operators often dismantle parts from stolen vehicles and combine them into a new vehicle. They do this in such a way that it is impossible to tell it has been done without looking at the VIN.
Other Vehicle Code sections aimed especially at chop shops are:
- California Vehicle Code 10801, operating a “chop shop,” and
- Vehicle Code 10803, buying or possessing vehicles or parts with multiple VINs.
However, even though Vehicle Code 10802 was passed to help combat illegal chop shops, it applies to anyone guilty of tampering with a vehicle identification number so that a vehicle or part can be wrongfully sold.
5. Penalties for altering or destroying a VIN
California Vehicle Code 10750 VC can only be charged as a misdemeanor. It carries a penalty of:
- up to one year in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.12
California Vehicle Code 10802, on the other hand, is a “wobbler” offense. This means the prosecutor can charge it as either a felony or a misdemeanor. If charged as a misdemeanor, it can be punished by:
- up to one year in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $1,000.13
If charged as a felony, however, Vehicle Code 10802 carries a possible penalty of:
- 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $25,000.14
5.1. Probation instead of incarceration
In cases for tampering with a vehicle identification number, the judge has the discretion under either code section to suspend your sentence and place you on:
If you are placed on probation, you may spend little or no time in jail. However, you will be under the supervision of the court for a number of years. During that time you will be subject to certain restrictions, which may include:
- Community service or labor, such as Caltrans roadside work,
- Not associating with gang members (if applicable),
- Regular meetings with a probation officer (for felony probation), and
- Not violating any other laws.
If you violate any conditions of your probation, the judge has the option to revoke your probation and send you to jail to serve your sentence.
6. Defenses to VIN tampering charges
There are numerous defenses to charges of tampering with a vehicle identification number, especially under Vehicle Code 10802. These are just a few:
- You defaced the VIN accidentally. For example, John decides to replace his dashboard because it is cracked. Though he does not know how to remove it from the vehicle. He ends up smashing it with a hammer and accidentally damaging part of the VIN.15
- You tried to hide the vehicle’s identity, but you did not change the VIN. For example, Karla and Kenny robbed a convenience store. Afterward, they swapped license plates with another vehicle. Even though they tried to hide the car’s identity (and are guilty of other crimes), they are not guilty of VIN tampering because they did nothing to change or hide the VIN.
- Someone else previously altered the VIN. For example, Abe’s hobby is buying cheap cars to sell them. While he is working on a car, Abe notices that the VIN on the engine block does not match the VIN on the dashboard. Since the VIN was already changed when he got it, he is not guilty of VIN tampering.
- You were not altering the VIN so that it could be sold. For example, Laurence stole a car so he would not have to take the bus to work and changed the VIN to keep it from being discovered. He violated 10750 VC but not 10802 VC because his purpose was not to sell it.
- The police only discovered the altered VIN as the result of an illegal search. When this happens, the criminal defense attorney can file a motion to suppress evidence under California Penal Code 1538.5 PC. If the court grants the motion, there may be insufficient evidence left to sustain the case.
7. Related offenses to tampering with a vehicle identification number
7.1 Vehicle Code 10801 VC – Operating a chop shop
California Vehicle Code 10801 VC makes it a crime to knowingly own or operate a “chop shop.” A “chop shop” is any place where someone:
- alters, dismantles or stores a stolen motor vehicle or vehicle part(s),
- for the purpose of hiding the identity of the vehicle or part or selling or disposing of it.16
Vehicle Code 10801 VC is a wobbler offense. As a misdemeanor, it carries a possible sentence of:
- up to one year in county jail, and/or
- up to a $1,000 fine.17
As a felony, operating a California chop shop carries a sentence of:
- up to four years in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $50,000.18
7.2 Vehicle Code 10803 VC – Buying /possessing vehicles with tampered VINs
California Vehicle Code 10803 VC, buying or possessing vehicles with tampered VINs, is an offense related to VIN tampering. Vehicle Code 10803 VC makes it a “wobbler” offense to buy or possess more than one vehicle (or parts from more than one vehicle) with altered VINs for the purpose of selling them.
As a misdemeanor, California Vehicle Code 10803 is punishable by up to one year in county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. As a felony, possessing such vehicles or parts is punishable under Vehicle Code 10803(b) by 16 months, or two or three years in county jail and/or by a fine of up to $30,000.
However, if you purchase the vehicles or parts with tampered VIN, then under Vehicle Code 10803(a), you face a sentence of:
- two, four, or six years in county jail, and/or
- a fine of up to $60,000.
An exception is for motor vehicle scrap processors who legally process motor vehicles or parts by crushing or compacting, but who do not remove the VINs during processing.
7.3 Vehicle Code 4463 VC – Vehicle registration fraud
California Vehicle Code 4463 VC, fraudulent vehicle registration, makes it a crime to alter, forge, counterfeit, or falsify:
- a certificate of ownership,
- a vehicle license plate,
- vehicle license stickers, or
- a California DMV registration card
with fraudulent intent.19 It also makes it a crime to possess or display a registration card or stickers which are:
- counterfeit, or
Finally, Vehicle Code 4463 makes it a crime to try to pass off as genuine a registration card, license or stickers which you know are false, altered, forged, or counterfeited.21
7.3.1. Penalties for 4463VC violations
California Vehicle Code 4463 VC is a wobbler offense. As a misdemeanor, the penalty is:
- up to one year in county jail, and
- a fine of up to $1,000.22
As a felony, it is punishable by:
- 16 months, or two or three years in county jail, and
- a fine of up to $10,000.23
Call us for help…
For more information about California’s VIN tampering laws, or to discuss your case confidentially with one of our criminal defense attorneys, please don’t hesitate to contact us at Shouse Law Group. Our California criminal law offices are located in and around Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, San Jose, Oakland, the San Francisco Bay area, and several nearby cities.
Additionally, our Las Vegas Nevada criminal defense attorneys represent clients accused of violating Nevada’s criminal laws. For more information, we invite you to contact our local attorneys at one of our Nevada law offices, located in Reno and Las Vegas.
- California Penal Code 19 PC.
- California Vehicle Code 10802 VC: Any person who knowingly alters, counterfeits, defaces, destroys, disguises, falsifies, forges, obliterates, or removes vehicle identification numbers, with the intent to misrepresent the identity or prevent the identification of motor vehicles or motor vehicle parts, for the purpose of sale, transfer, import, or export, is guilty of a public offense and, upon conviction, shall be punished by imprisonment pursuant to subdivision (h) of Section 1170 of the Penal Code for 16 months, or two or three years, or by a fine of not more than twenty-five thousand dollars ($25,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment, or by up to one year in the county jail, or by a fine of not more than one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.
- 671 VC.
- See People v. Joiner (2000) 84 Cal.App.4th 946.
- California Vehicle Code 10750 (a) PC: No person shall intentionally deface, destroy, or alter the motor number, other distinguishing number, or identification mark of a vehicle required or employed for registration purposes without written authorization from the department, nor shall any person place or stamp any serial, motor, or other number or mark upon a vehicle, except one assigned thereto by the department.
- Endnote 2.
- Endnote 6.
- Same at 965-966.
- Endnote 1.
- Endnote 2.
- See People v. Jeffers (1996) 41 Cal.App.4th 917.
- CALCRIM 1752.
- 10801 VC.
- 4463(a)(1) VC.
- 4463(a)(2) VC.
- 4463(a) VC.