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(SACRAMENTO) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today announced he has filed criminal charges against an Alabama man accused of providing fraudulent title and registration documents that are believed to have cost California more than $1 million in tax revenues and license fees over the past two years, and as much as $14 million since 1975.
"This scam operation provided false information that low-balled the value of antique, classic and specialty cars, allowing the owners to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes and vehicle registration fees," Lockyer said. "Our joint investigation leads us to suspect between 20,000 and 70,000 vehicles have been fraudulently registered in California through similar schemes. At a time when the state is facing such a severe budget crisis, scams like this are especially egregious and will be prosecuted."
Richard Weaver, 54, of Birmingham, Ala., will be arraigned at 10:30 a.m. Thursday in Sacramento Superior Court, Department 8. In his complaint, the Attorney General charges Weaver with 18 counts of offering false bills of sale and vehicle registrations through his business, Titles Unlimited, which also does business as Pinson Valley Auto Sales. Weaver faces a maximum punishment of 14 years and four months.
The joint investigation was conducted by the Attorney General's Office, the Yolo County District Attorney's Office and the Sacramento Valley Hi-Tech Crimes Task Force, which includes attorneys, agents and officers from the Attorney General's Office and Sacramento County Sheriff Lou Blanas' office. Also assisting were the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) and the California Highway Patrol.
The investigation was launched in October 2001, when the Yolo County District Attorney's Office began looking into the fraudulent registration of a 2000 Superformance Cobra that had been titled in Alabama. Former Woodland police officer Terry Brown purchased the vehicle without an engine or transmission for $37,480. He installed a new Ford MotorSport 351/392 CID 430-horsepower engine, bringing the value of the completed vehicle to $51,358.
For a $200 fee, Brown filled out an application for a bill of sale with Titles Unlimited, doing business as Pinson Valley Auto Sales. Titles Unlimited registered Brown's vehicle in Alabama as a 1965 Ford Cobra convertible valued at $13,500, and then reconveyed title to Brown. Brown then used that document to fraudulently register his vehicle with the DMV. The Attorney General's Office prosecuted Brown, who pled guilty in April 2002 to making a false statement to the DMV. Brown was required to perform 80 hours of community service, correctly register his vehicle and pay $655 in registration fees and $2,375 in taxes.
According to the Attorney General's office, Weaver knew his bills of sale to California customers would be used to fraudulently register their vehicles. On the Titles Unlimited website, individuals are specifically told: "‘Price' is the same price as you wish to have on the papers back to you. Since in some states you may be required to pay sales tax on this price, be careful not to make it too high or too low."
Titles Unlimited customers also are instructed: "Take ONLY your registration, the letter from the issuing state that we send you stating that the registration IS YOUR TITLE, and the BILL OF SALE from OUR DEALER to you. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT!!!"
The joint investigation found that 513 Titles Unlimited vehicles have been registered in California since 2000. The Titles Unlimited website states that the company has "processed over 30,000 automobile titles in the past 28 years." The Attorney General's office conservatively estimates that Titles Unlimited for the past 28 years has provided documentation for more than 4,000 cars registered in California.
As part of the investigation, the California Highway Patrol assisted in the service of search warrants on vehicles in Northern California that had been registered through Pinson Valley Auto Sales. Owners of 17 of the vehicles are expected to be granted immunity in exchange for their testimony regarding Titles Unlimited and Pinson Valley Auto Sales. They also will be required to legally re-register their vehicles and pay appropriate monetary penalties to the DMV
In addition, the investigation led to the identification of at least three other companies suspected of conducting similar operations. The state believes between 20,000 and 70,000 vehicles may have been registered in Californian using these fraudulent schemes.