Jennifer Brinkley had a typical summer morning planned on July 15: get up, get dressed, and take her son to tennis practice. That changed when six body armor-clad Department of Homeland Security agents and local police officers showed up at her North Carolina home and blocked her driveway. They were there because of an arbitrary law promulgated 26 years ago to guard the prerogatives — and profits —of automakers and car dealers. Specifically, they were there to take Brinkley's truck.
"They wouldn't even tell me why it was being seized," said Brinkley, who lives near Charlotte. Though she didn't understand what was happening, she reluctantly complied with the agents' request. "If you're a law-abiding citizen, what can you do?" she said.
Around 6 a.m. that same day in Yakima, Wash., and Mobile, Ala., Homeland Security agents and police came to the homes of Mike Rodeiger and Jack Montgomery, respectively, with warrants that ordered more truck seizures. Montgomery, an attorney, said they threatened to arrest him for obstruction of justice if he or his family took photos of them.
"It was disgusting," said Montgomery, an attorney who asked Jalopnik to alter his last name for this story, out of fear that the incident could harm his legal practice. "It's beyond weird. Weird would be a nice word for it. This is thuggery."
In a series of pre-dawn raids that morning in July, agents scoured the country for 40 Land Rovers in an ongoing civil forfeiture case. All of them were older; all of them were the rugged Defender models; and all of them had originated outside the U.S. and were imported here in the last few years by the same man — but in a way that authorities say may have violated America's strict car import laws.
Brinkley's Defender before it was seized. Photo credit Jennifer Brinkley
Since that day in July, federal authorities have seized even more Defenders around the country. U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials allege that all of the vehicles are not in compliance with America's vehicle importation laws, which stipulate that a car must be more than 25 years old to be legally imported here from another country.
But each of the Defenders in this case is now at least 26 years old, according to court documents and several owners who spoke with Jalopnik. Many of the seized trucks were in rough condition or in the process of being repaired or restored. Brinkley was the fourth owner of her Land Rover since it had been imported into the U.S.; at first she had no clue why federal agents would want a run-down vehicle she calls "a glorified tractor."
Roediger's 1986 Land Rover was in a state of disrepair at a body shop, but the agents wanted it after inspecting it there and declaring it had a bogus Vehicle Identification Number. They said the truck was in reality much newer than a 1986 model, which meant it was in violation of the law when it was shipped to America.
"I said, 'How can that be?'" Roediger said. "'Look at the frame. It's even got rust.' They said that could be faked."
A 1984 Defender gets seized by Homeland Security officials.
Months after the seizures, a fight to get the Defenders back is being waged in federal court by Will Hedrick, a Land Rover enthusiast and bankruptcy lawyer by day who has taken on the case pro bono.
Hedrick said the government, as well as Jaguar Land Rover North America, made more than a few errors in supplying and interpreting the information that led to the seizure of the cars. So far, he's made a lot of progress. Six of the seized Land Rovers have been returned through his efforts.
Despite the seemingly long odds of taking on the federal government by himself, Hedrick is working to get the case dismissed outright, and if not, he said, a trial could possibly happen sometime this year.
"I think they expected to find a bunch of VIN-swapped vehicles," he said. "That's not the case."
Hedrick's case contends that the cars are currently of legal age, making their seizure "moot." He also argues that each vehicle was within a few months of being 25 years old when it was imported — and that the law measures age from the model year, not its date of manufacture.
The seized trucks were all imported into the U.S. by the same man, Aaron Richardet, a North Carolina chiropractor. Ostensibly, the seizures occurred as part of a possible criminal case being built against Richardet, but so far he has not been charged with anything. Richardet told Jalopnik he believes he imported all of the Defenders correctly and broke no laws.
Officials from Customs and Border Protection declined to comment on this case specifically, but said in an email that they and other agencies from the United Kingdom have been targeting imported Defenders and Mini Coopers they believe aren't in compliance with the law as part of a program called Operation Atlantic. This operation has led to several prosecutions in both countries, they said.
But to the owners of the Defenders, their seizures are a gross violation of their property rights, an overreach by the government that hasn't been explained to them very well. Federal officials say they're just taking unsafe and illegal cars off the road, and doing so in connection with an investigation into a man who hasn't been charged with breaking any laws and might not be.
"But what if he's innocent?" Brinkley said of Richardet. "What happens to our trucks then?"
The Land Rover Defender is a far cry from the modern, high-tech, leather-lined Land Rovers that are fixtures at every Neiman Marcus parking lot — and that's a big reason the vehicle has such a cult following.
It's a boxy, rugged, truck-like 4x4, stripped out and basic, mechanically simple and easy to work on. But it's also the closest modern thing to the old safari-ready offroaders that come to mind when someone mentions the name "Land Rover."
The truck was launched in the 1980s as a revival of the company's old adventure vehicles, but it was only sold in the American market for a brief few years in the mid-1990s.
This has led many of its American fans to import older ones from the UK or other countries. The Defender still rolls off the assembly lines in the United Kingdom, although to the sadness of many, 2015 will be its last year of production.
Pristine Defenders can get expensive, but many of the Defenders in this case are far from pristine. They're all 1980s models that have already done what they were built to do — go where normal cars cannot.
"It has this iconic look it's had for 50 years," said Zak Mosieur of Portland, who imports Defenders and diesel engine kits. This also makes it hard to determine their age.
"At a glance, the trucks all look the same," Mosieur said. "You can't really tell the difference."
In fact, due to the Defender's longevity and modular nature — it's built for farm and military duty, after all — many exporters will sell trucks with newer doors, body panels, or interior parts grafted onto older vehicles. Some are on their second or third engine.
Telling their true age is hard because so many different parts may have been grafted onto the original frame, which along with the engine is what really matters where import laws are concerned.
The 'Mercedes' Law
Until the 1980s, Americans were mostly free to import just about any car they wanted into the U.S. Luxury cars, often with engines or options not available in the U.S. market, were among the most popular choices for so-called "grey imports."
But because these imports were moving through unofficial distribution channels, they started eating into automakers' profits. After Mercedes-Benz and other car companies spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress, lawmakers passed rules in 1988 that heavily restricted the importation of foreign cars.
Today there are really only a few legal ways to import a foreign car. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the vehicle safety arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, requires that a vehicle be 25 years old or older (or already compliant with U.S. safety regulations, like a U.S.-spec vehicle sold abroad) for safety reasons. The Environmental Protection Agency requires the vehicle or engine be 21 years old or older for emissions.
Officially, the reason for these laws is to keep vehicles that don't meet America's strict safety and smog-control laws out of the U.S, and to prevent polluting and unsafe vehicles from endangering lives. Customs officials said in an email that they also fear the importation of stolen goods into the U.S., something they claim happens in "many instances."
But critics, car collectors, aspiring enthusiasts and would-be importers have derided the laws as protectionist and arbitrary. Some vehicles can be imported under what's called the "show or display" law, but that is limited to an approved list of certain cars and restricts how they can be used.
For example, an American cannot import a new Volkswagen Scirocco from Germany because it isn't sold here and hasn't been crash tested in America, even though it's mechanically similar to the Volkswagen Golf sold in the U.S. and has a top five-star crash rating in the European New Car Assessment Programme crash tests.
A new European BMW M3 can't be imported here, either, even though it has an equivalent version in the U.S., because it's not American-spec. With modern cars this often means small details, like the color of the turn-signal indicators.
What if someone wanted to import a 2001 Nissan Skyline GT-R to the U.S., a car that's long been regarded as forbidden fruit among enthusiasts? Is it any less safe than an American-market Nissan from the same year? Importers who wish to bring the Skyline or other cars to the U.S. must pay to have several of them crash tested first to certify they're safe, destroying them in the process, an expensive and time-consuming process.
Canada, which has safety standards that are often identical to the ones in the United States, allows cars that are 15 years or older to be imported.
And when it comes to emissions, while many new European cars feature smaller and cleaner engines than ones we get, they can't be imported here because they haven't been tested and certified by the EPA and because our government views emissions differently than do Europeans.
As for the 1980s Defenders in this case, a 1981 version of the car isn't substantially different from a later model and not necessarily more or less safe than an SUV sold in the U.S. in the same period. It may even be safer than, say, a small car from the 1990s, due to its sheer size.
And some of the upgrades on these Defenders to make them safer and cleaner—more modern engines, newer parts—are being adduced as evidence against the cars.
It's not clear exactly how many vehicles Americans attempt to import each year, or how many are rejected for not meeting legal requirements. Jalopnik filed an Freedom of Information Act request in late December seeking that data, but it has not been fulfilled yet. Customs officials said in an email that Operation Atlantic alone has had "interventions" with $1 million worth of vehicles.
Some importers try to skirt these rules, illegally, by swapping the VIN from an older car onto a newer one. That's what federal officials allege happened with a 2000 Mini Cooper in New Jersey in December; they claim that car had a 1988 VIN plate that belied its modern stereo and airbags, which is why they had to crush it in a kind of public display of how the law must be enforced.
Because of its iconic status and its scarcity in the U.S., the Defender has been a popular choice for importation. In this country, low-mileage, great condition Defenders can go for as much as $100,000.
It's also a top choice for importers looking to make a buck by selling trucks that aren't really up to U.S. specs at first glance.
"As of April 2014, the entry of 369 Land Rover vehicles declared as exempt because of their age had been reviewed by NHTSA," prosecuting Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve West wrote in one filing. "Approximately 20 percent of these vehicles were found not eligible for the exemption and 14 percent of the Land Rover vehicles reviewed exhibited evidence that their VINs were removed, obliterated, tampered with, or altered."
As such, they've been targeted by federal authorities for years now. From a 2013 Car and Driver story:
Checking the VIN, or vehicle identification number, is the first—and traditionally only—stop for verifying a vehicle's age. In the Defender, VINs appear in two spots: There's one on the chassis, and another VIN plate on the casing of the brake booster. In most cases, the original VINs are ground off the newer Defender and a VIN from a 25-year-old European Defender—one on the road still, or one rusting away in a field somewhere—is etched in.
With NHTSA's guidance, customs officials have caught many of these. This is a black-and-white case of breaking the rules, but there are murkier situations.
In 2013, customs officials said they seized "dozens" of Defenders believed to be illegal at ports in Philadelphia, Norfolk, Houston, Tacoma and several other cities. Many of those trucks, officials said, had altered VINs.
By some accounts, Richardet, the chiropractor who imported the cars involved in the most recent seizures, was one of the top importers of Defenders in the country. Court documents state that from 2009 to 2012, he imported 114 Defenders into the country for sale through a licensed dealer called Patterson Auto Sales in Wilmington, N.C. (The dealership declined to comment when reached by phone.)
According to a complaint filed by Department of Homeland Security investigators, federal authorities began looking into Richardet and his imported Defenders in September 2012.
The complaint says customs inspectors at the port in Wilmington found what they said were issues with one 1983 and one 1986 model Richardet had brought in. Those included the presence of disc brakes, a diesel engine that wasn't in production until the late 1990s, interior and exterior features only found on later cars, a transfer box from a 2004 Defender and other discrepancies.
Obviously, this made authorities wonder if the vehicles were not what Richardet said they were, so they launched an investigation. In an email to his broker, Richardet said that both vehicles had simply undergone restorations and modifications "to make them safer and more user friendly," hence the newer parts. He went on:
The Truck was taken down to the frame. It was sand blasted then galvanized to prevent rust. The doors are prone to rust are scrapped and swapped out for newer ones. The old dashes have been out of production since 2004 so the newer dash is used if the old one is bad. The restoration shops try to make modifications and upgrades to the trucks to make them safer and more user friendly. Just like restoring an old camero [sic] old parts get junked and newer go one. I hope he will see that. All those parts are available from land rover and the truck has changed so little you can bolt them right on.
The complaint says that in October 2012, investigators started probing further, sending a list of the 110 Defenders to both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and to Jaguar Land Rover North America. They sought to determine whether the VINs matched with their respective cars, and whether the vehicles really complied with U.S. safety and emissions standards. (A source at Jaguar Land Rover North America confirmed that federal authorities issued a subpoena for that information.)
Documents filed by prosectors say investigators sent a Jaguar Land Rover North America safety compliance manager a list of the VINs of the vehicles Richardet had imported and asked him to identify their true date of manufacture. The safety manager included several details about the trucks, including their engine number and type, transmission, rear axle, transfer box number, original color, country of manufacture and the country where they were first delivered.
The manager sent the list along the following January. From there, the complaint says, investigators determined that 51 of the 114 Defenders were ineligible to be here because the date of production and the importation date both fell within the 25-year window. In March 2013, they seized 20 Defenders at Richardet's house, according to a local news report.
After months of surveillance, they came for the rest of them. Of the 51 vehicles, 40 were listed in the warrant. Eight were not found. (Six were later dismissed from the case and returned to owners after Hedrick's legal efforts.)
Authorities allege Richardet either lied about their age in his forms or imported them before they were the right age. Investigators decided that the Defenders "are, by their very nature, contraband and, thus, subject to seizure," according to the complaint.
But if the trucks were illegal, how were they even getting through customs in the first place?
That's possibly because customs officers don't thoroughly investigate everything that comes into port. Prosecutor West said in one of his court filings that this was because Richardet allegedly submitted fraudulent documents when he brought the trucks in, and customs officials had no way of knowing otherwise because he was submitting supposedly false information to them. West's take on the inspection process hardly inspires confidence:
CBP Officers do not perform intensive, intrusive examinations of every item imported into the United States. Such an approach would require an unacceptable level of resources, would unnecessarily slow legitimate commerce, and could pose a threat to our nation's economic security.
(The trucks were, however, inspected and registered by the state of North Carolina.)
And yet there remains a great disparity between how customs officials inspect imported goods, and how they crack down on cars they think are non-compliant. Owners have questioned how inspecting imported goods constitutes an "unacceptable level of resources," but having federal agents sweep the country with the help of local police to seize 40 trucks is not.
While federal officials didn't respond to calls and emails for comment, their philosophy on vehicles believed to be illegal is tied to vague notions of "safety" in their news releases on the crushing of the Mini Cooper last year:
"Safety is the U.S. Department of Transportation's top priority and we are committed to preventing the illegal importation of vehicles and exposing their potential safety risks," said Nancy Lewis, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration associate administrator for enforcement. "Along with our partners at CBP and CTAC, we'll remain diligent in our enforcement efforts to protect the driving public."
Exactly how these cars are such a threat to public safety isn't made clear. Again, it speaks to the arbitrary nature of the law: Why is it perfectly legal to import a 1970 Mini Cooper, but illegal to import a newer one with airbags and modern smog controls?
Were The Trucks Illegal?
Reached by phone, Richardet was reluctant to talk about any possible pending legal actions against him, or whether he had been charged or indicted. He did say that he started out as a longtime Defender enthusiast and decided to import them on the side. Since then he's seen his own Defenders get taken, has lost "a ton of money," and has had to deal with the guilt of the other owners' seizures.
"This was just a hobby," he said. "It wasn't my business… I don't like how this went for anybody."
Richardet did say that contrary to many of the rumors flying around, nothing truly illegal was going on with the trucks that might have raised the eyebrows of federal investigators — there was no smuggling of guns or drugs or anything like that.
He also insisted that every one of the Defenders he imported was of legal age when he did it, and said he followed the letter and spirit of the law.
"I did everything they asked me to," Richardet said. "Everything they asked for, they were given."
Richardet had nothing but high praise for Hedrick, and said he hopes he prevails in court. "Will knows I'm pulling for him," he said.
"Obviously, I hope all the cars get back to their owners, and they should get back," Richardet said. "But as for the inner workings of the case, I don't know."
Hedrick said the majority of Richardet-imported Defenders in his case were not restored and were sold as is, which is to say they were in whatever shape they happened to be in at the time they were purchased. The importer may have done some fixes, but none were on par with top restorations. At least six were purchased as bundles of parts, and some couldn't pass inspection in the U.K.
Brinkley said her Defender, purchased a year ago, needed months of rebuilding before it came back to her. She only had it six months before it was seized.
Roediger bought his Defender from Richardet in 2011 through Patterson Auto Sales. It was the second time he had attempted to do so. Back in 2009, he nearly completed the purchase of another Defender from the chiropractor, only to back out when he discovered it maybe didn't have its original engine, but instead a motor that may not have been 21 years old.
Roediger described his experience buying from the chiropractor as "kind of mixed."
"I felt like (Richardet) was being a bit unethical about some of his engines," he said. At the same time, Richardet was thorough and helpful with the buying process, and got back to him quickly when he asked questions following the sale. Roediger thinks it's possible Richardet was just being "sloppy" with the years of the engines and when they were eligible for import.
He's not representing Richardet, but Hedrick said that because an importer has to sign a sworn declaration at customs, the chiropractor could potentially be charged with some type of fraud. (Recently, a Mississippi man who illegally imported a 2001 Nissan Skyline to the U.S. was charged with smuggling goods, along with several counts of wire fraud related to an attempt to sell the car.)
But then prosecutors would have to prove that he knowingly brought the trucks over in violation of the law, and wasn't just sloppy with his paperwork.
Guilty Until Proven Innocent
If any attorney is equipped to fight this fight, it's probably Hedrick. He's a longtime Defender enthusiast worked at a Land Rover dealership in sales before going to law school.
Hedrick first heard about the seizures on the Internet and was soon contacted by a friend of his brother's who'd had his Defender taken away. He started looking into that owner's legal recourse and posted on the Defender Source forum that he could do the same for other Defender fans.
The response exceeded his wildest expectations. Over the next few months, every person whose vehicle was seized that day in July — many of whom weren't even forum members — reached out, too.
Hedrick contends in his court case that mistakes were made in reading at least some of the vehicles' VINs, wrongfully identifying their age, and that the government has offered no justifiable proof that the VINs were incorrect at all.
"I knew there was something wrong with the way they were being researched," Hedrick said.
Hedrick said Land Rover ran searches on Richardet's trucks based only on the last six digits of the VIN, a sequence that is the vehicle's serial number and thus may repeat for certain models after a number of years. A Defender from the 1980s could have the same final six digits as a newer one. In one filing, prosecutors confirmed the six trucks "had been misidentified by Jaguar Land Rover."
Darren Smith, who runs an awards and engraving business in Wake Forest, said the seizure warrants listed his Defender as a 2000 model when it clearly wasn't.
"Anyone with a hint of common sense could tell that wasn't the case" by looking at the haggard old truck he calls "Frankenrover," Smith said. His 1983 Defender was among the six returned after it was seized.
In an email found in the court documents, prosecutor West said that after Land Rover ran the entire VIN, those six trucks were found to be more than 25 years from production at the time of import. He agreed to their dismissal and return.
This makes Hedrick and others watching the case wonder: What else did Land Rover get wrong?
"I see a lot of mistakes made along the way in what they provided," Hedrick said. In addition, he said the VINs come not from Land Rover itself but from the Heritage Motor Centre in England, so he's seen "no records to substantiate their authenticity."
Prosecutors in their filings take a similar tack, but in reverse — they say there's no evidence to indicate all of Richardet's trucks were legal when he brought them in.
Hedrick's case will try to show the government hasn't proven the trucks violated the law when they were imported. "There's never been anything presented in the government's case as to their non-compliance," he said. And even so, he'll argue the vehicles should be returned and allowed to stay because they're all now at least 26 years old.
It's on him to prove this. In criminal law, a suspect is presumed innocent until the state proves him or her guilty, and the burden is up to the state to do so beyond a reasonable doubt.
But in civil forfeiture, Hedrick says, that principle is turned on its head — the property is presumed "guilty" and its owner faces the burden of proving that it's more likely "innocent" than not. "In forfeiture, all the government has to show is probable cause that a crime was committed. Then the claimant has to show it was not," he said.
Most forfeiture cases go uncontested, he said, because the property in question is something no owner would want to claim—drugs or weapons, for instance. In other instances, people often give up because the legal process gets so expensive.
"You're going to spend more money to get your property back than it's worth," Hedrick said.
In this case, the Defender owners don't have to worry about that because Hedrick is working the case for free, but they are concerned about the state of their vehicles, many of which are scattered across the country in government impound lots. About a third are in "various states of disassembly," Hedrick said. One of his clients told he even saw an engine getting dragged across the floor until it was loaded onto a flatbed.
"Mine's going to end up doing border patrols down in Texas," Brinkley joked.
Why These Rusty Old Trucks?
What has owners truly perplexed is what prompted the investigation into Richardet in the first place, as well as the crackdown on Defenders as a whole. Montgomery wonders why priorities were placed on a coordinated, nationwide seizure of cars by customs officials around the same time the country was dealing with a humanitarian crisis as tens of thousands of children came flooding across the U.S.-Mexico border.
"It's a bunch of old, rusty trucks," said Montgomery, the Alabama lawyer. "It's not some national security thing."
Mosieur, the importer in Portland, said it's become very hard to import Defenders into the U.S. since the Richardet investigation began. "The difference between then and now is crazy," he said. "There's way more scrutiny… I'm afraid to bring another one in now."
CBP officials crush a Defender they say was illegally brought into the country through the Port of Baltimore in 2013.
Many, including Mosieur and Hedrick, wonder why Jaguar Land Rover North America has been so involved with getting the trucks off American roads (or dirt, in many cases). They've wondered why the company has provided so much support to the government in this case.
Maybe these old, rusty trucks are an embarrassment to the brand, or maybe Land Rover feels they could pull buyers away from getting the new models they sell at their dealerships — although Mosieur admits that's hard to believe since they're so very different.
Stuart Schorr, a spokesman for Jaguar Land Rover North America, told Jalopnik that this was assuredly not true, and said the company hasn't been involved in the case.
"We appreciate people's enthusiasm for the Defender," Schorr said. "We understand the desire people have for them."
In the meantime, owners have little else to do besides help Hedrick with his case and fume at the government.
"This is the Department of Homeland Security run amok," Montgomery said. "They need to let them go tomorrow. They need to reimburse us for the loss of our vehicles."
And in spite of everything, Roediger said he doesn't really have hard feelings toward Richardet. He's angrier about the seizures than about anything else.
He also said that when his Defender was seized, the agents asked if he'd be willing to be a witness in a case against Richardet. At first he considered it, thinking it might get his truck back sooner. "After all that has happened, there's no way I'd testify against the doctor now," he said. "I don't want to help their case."
That's a point Hedrick has raised, too: "I once said to (Assistant U.S. Attorney) Steve West, 'Do you really expect people to testify favorably after you've seized their vehicles?"
For her part, Brinkley can't understand any aspect of the case, which she sees as a waste of tax dollars on an investigation of a man who may not have even broken the law. But she and the other owners just want one thing — their Defenders back.
"They better be in damn good shape," Brinkley said. "That's all I have to say."
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Top illustration credit Sam Woolley