Buying a car and actually owning it in the eyes of the law are not the same thing. Some Americans are finding that out the hard way.
Markeisha Fowlkes needed a car so she could drive a bus.
The single mother of two worked as a bus driver in Los Angeles but lived in Long Beach, California, and the 25-mile, one-way commute—which didn’t even include getting her children to school—made a vehicle of her own a necessity.
So in 2015, Fowlkes saved up enough to purchase a Dodge Charger from a small independent seller, Ace Auto Dealership. As is common at car dealers across America, Fowlkes drove off the lot without registration while the dealer arranged the transfer of ownership with the state DMV. But three weeks later, Ace Auto asked that Fowlkes return the car, claiming it couldn’t find a third-party lender. Because Ace Auto refused to return her $2,000 downpayment, Fowlkes declined to turn over the vehicle, instead making her pre-arranged payments. But her permanent registration and license plates never arrived.
In California, new car owners have 90 days to obtain permanent license plates. After that was when Fowlkes began to attract attention from law enforcement. “They thought the car was stolen,” she told me. “I got pulled over so many times, my kids would see a cop and say, ‘We’re going to get pulled over!'” She took to keeping the dealer sale paper in her glove compartment and would have to sweet talk the police out of ticketing her.