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COA: Tractor sale contract not enforceable

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The Indiana Court of Appeals says it’s against public policy to uphold any civil contract that’s based on an illegal action, and so the court says it won’t create a rule allowing that transaction agreement to be enforced.

An 18-page ruling came May 19 in James S. Tracy v. Steve Morell, et al., No. 59A01-1009-PL-488, affirming in part and reversing in part an Orange County judge’s decision about a tractor transaction where the identification number appears to have been illegally removed.

This case involves a fraud and counter-claim stemming from the 2002 sale of a used Ford Holland farm tractor with an altered identification number, which James Tracy agreed to buy for $12,500 and set up payments on. Tracy paid $8,500, but stopped making payments in 2003 and left about $4,000 outstanding. A few months after that, prosecutors charged Steve Morrell with four counts of receiving stolen tractors and farm equipment. Tracy learned of the situation and contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to inform them of the tractor he’d purchased and had been paying on. Police inspected the tractor and found the ID number had been illegally altered, but after impounding it they closed that investigation because of prohibitive costs in determining who might have owned the tractor. Morrell pleaded guilty to the pending felony stolen property counts that also involved altered numbers, but it didn’t involve Tracy’s tractor.

That led to Tracy’s fraud allegations, and a counter-claim by Morrell that Tracy had defaulted on the promissory note the two had exchanged as part of the sale. Following a bench trial, Circuit Judge James Blanton dismissed Tracy’s complaint with prejudice for failing to meet his burden of proof on fraud and concluded that he owed Morrell $4,000 because it was an enforceable contract.

On appeal, the three-judge appellate panel determined enough evidence existed for the trial judge to rule on the merits and that there was no reason why he should have dismissed Tracy’s claim. Though Judge Blanton didn’t err when he held Tracy failed to meet his burden of proof on the fraud claim, the appellate court found that the contract is unenforceable because of a mutual mistake of fact between the parties and the contract violates public policy.

Specifically, the appeals judges looked to Indiana Code 35-43-4-2.3 that made it a crime to deal in altered property. Even though the state abandoned its attempt to prove that Morrell had stolen the specific tractor at issue here and Tracy didn’t prove to the trial court’s satisfaction that a crime had been committed or that there had been a violation of the Crime Victim’s Relief Act, the court said that doesn’t end the inquiry about whether this contract is enforceable.

“The tractor’s identification number was destroyed, and we can think of no lawful reason why the number was ground down, filled in with putty and painted over,” Judge Edward Najam wrote. “Rather, the only purpose for concealing the true identity of the tractor was to move the property outside the stream of lawful commerce into a secondary or ‘black market.’ We decline to adopt a rule that someone may sell altered property with impunity and then claim ignorance as a complete defense in a civil action from the sale. Such a rule would violate public policy because in the sale of personal property, unless otherwise agreed, the seller’s ownership free and clear of liens and encumbrances is presumed. Here, the tractor was encumbered by an altered identification number. Whether or not a crime occurred, and whether or not statutory relief is available under the Crime Victim’s Relief Act, the law should not permit a seller to transfer property with an altered identification number without being held accountable for it.”

The appellate court ordered that Tracy has no further obligation on the promissory note and he’s entitled to a rescission of the tractor sale contract and monetary judgment in the amount he’d paid with interest.

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  1. This law is troubling in two respects: First, why wasn't the law reviewed "with the intention of getting all the facts surrounding the legislation and its actual impact on the marketplace" BEFORE it was passed and signed? Seems a bit backwards to me (even acknowledging that this is the Indiana state legislature we're talking about. Second, what is it with the laws in this state that seem to create artificial monopolies in various industries? Besides this one, the other law that comes to mind is the legislation that governed the granting of licenses to firms that wanted to set up craft distilleries. The licensing was limited to only those entities that were already in the craft beer brewing business. Republicans in this state talk a big game when it comes to being "business friendly". They're friendly alright . . . to certain businesses.

  2. Gretchen, Asia, Roberto, Tonia, Shannon, Cheri, Nicholas, Sondra, Carey, Laura ... my heart breaks for you, reaching out in a forum in which you are ignored by a professional suffering through both compassion fatigue and the love of filthy lucre. Most if not all of you seek a warm blooded Hoosier attorney unafraid to take on the government and plead that government officials have acted unconstitutionally to try to save a family and/or rescue children in need and/or press individual rights against the Leviathan state. I know an attorney from Kansas who has taken such cases across the country, arguing before half of the federal courts of appeal and presenting cases to the US S.Ct. numerous times seeking cert. Unfortunately, due to his zeal for the constitutional rights of peasants and willingness to confront powerful government bureaucrats seemingly violating the same ... he was denied character and fitness certification to join the Indiana bar, even after he was cleared to sit for, and passed, both the bar exam and ethics exam. And was even admitted to the Indiana federal bar! NOW KNOW THIS .... you will face headwinds and difficulties in locating a zealously motivated Hoosier attorney to face off against powerful government agents who violate the constitution, for those who do so tend to end up as marginalized as Paul Odgen, who was driven from the profession. So beware, many are mere expensive lapdogs, the kind of breed who will gladly take a large retainer, but then fail to press against the status quo and powers that be when told to heel to. It is a common belief among some in Indiana that those attorneys who truly fight the power and rigorously confront corruption often end up, actually or metaphorically, in real life or at least as to their careers, as dead as the late, great Gary Welch. All of that said, I wish you the very best in finding a Hoosier attorney with a fighting spirit to press your rights as far as you can, for you do have rights against government actors, no matter what said actors may tell you otherwise. Attorneys outside the elitist camp are often better fighters that those owing the powers that be for their salaries, corner offices and end of year bonuses. So do not be afraid to retain a green horn or unconnected lawyer, many of them are fine men and woman who are yet untainted by the "unique" Hoosier system.

  3. I am not the John below. He is a journalist and talk show host who knows me through my years working in Kansas government. I did no ask John to post the note below ...

  4. "...not those committed in the heat of an argument." If I ever see a man physically abusing a woman or a child and I'm close enough to intercede I will not ask him why he is abusing her/him. I will give him a split second to cease his attack and put his hands in the air while I call the police. If he continues, I will still call the police but to report, "Man down with a gunshot wound,"instead.

  5. And so the therapeutic state is weaonized. How soon until those with ideologies opposing the elite are disarmed in the name of mental health? If it can start anywhere it can start in the hoosiers' slavishly politically correct capital city.

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