Judge rules against couple whose car was repossessed to pay niece’s debt

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SOUTH HAVEN, Mich.—A West Michigan couple bought a car and gave it to their niece so she could get to and from work, but two weeks after their last payment, the car was taken and put up for auction.

A judge recently ruled that the niece showed ownership of the car by driving it, and making payments to her aunt and uncle. Despite Linda and Verlin Hunt paying the car off, paying insurance and holding the title.

Linda and Verlin Hunt were very emotional after the a judge ruled on November 14 that Viper Security was within their rights to tow and auction off their 2007 Chevy Cobalt.   Viper is contracted by the Van Buren County Sheriff’s Department to enforce debt collections.

The car was confiscated because the Hunts' niece, Susan Rodriguez, failed to pay a $3,400 debt for furniture to County Home Furniture.

Rodruiguez has been driving the car and giving her aunt and uncle payments. The Hunts say Rodriguez’s small payments didn’t cover nearly all the money they had put into the car.

“We paid $8,500 off on it, and we paid $1,300 to a guy named Bobby to put a new motor in it. She was $1,200 behind in payments, and we paid $156 per month for insurance,” said Hunt.

Attorney Albert Laaksonen wanted to represent the Hunts so they would have a voice. He says most people don’t have the resources or the means to fight a seizure of property from the sheriff’s department.

“They clearly had invested a significant if not all of the value in the vehicle of payments. There’s just a sense that something is wrong when that happens,” said Laaksonen.

Laaksonen believed the Hunts had a case, because they showed ownership of the car by paying for all of its expenses, including maintenance of a new motor.

In South Haven District Court, Judge Arthur H. Clark III ruled otherwise, saying the car belonged to the Hunts' niece , and it will be put up for auction.

However, he still cut the Hunts a small break. They will get 20 percent of the total price that the car is auctioned off for, but the total price they are estimating the car will be bought for is only $2,000.

Viper Security believes the judge ruled correctly.

“We are happy about the outcome. It’s something we always believed in the entire time,” said Richard Martin of Viper Security.

Country House Furniture was also pleased with the outcome of the hearing.  They said they do not like this to happen to any of their clients, but Rodriguez failed to work out a payment plan with them on several occasions.

“I think it’s fair, the defendant has been driving the car from day one,” said Brandon Cook of Country House Furniture.

Martin and Cook is sure what they get from the auction likely won’t cover the debt owed on the furniture and costs for towing and storing the car.

“It could be a complete loss,” said Cook.

The Hunts are still unhappy with what little they will get.

“Would you be happy if you just paid $8,500 on a car and somebody took it, and said we’ll give you 20 percent of what it’s worth? No you wouldn’t, so we aren’t happy,” said Verlin Hunt.

Laaksonen says every judge could come back with a different ruling in a case like this.  The bottom line here is just because you paid for something and have proof of ownership, giving possession over to a friend or family member means it could be taken in a debt collection case.


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