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Car tax law loophole can haunt Rhode Islanders for decades

Target 12

WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – Former Woonsocket resident Shane Sartini walked into a Rhode Island AAA to renew his car registration in February 2018. Instead, he was told that if he wanted to renew his registration, he would first have to pay $916 for back taxes from 14 years earlier.

Sartini said he was blindsided and never received notification of the back taxes or the block on his registration.

A Target 12 investigation found that Rhode Island law requires a taxpayer to pay the amount even if the individual was never notified.

And while a law passed in 2019 provided a 10-year statute of limitations on state collections for personal income, sales, estate and corporate taxes — it offered no such protections for motor vehicle taxes.

As a result the R.I. Department of Motor Vehicles is able to place tax blocks on vehicle registrations for debts that are decades old, according to Woonsocket Assistant City Solicitor Peter Wasylyk.

Sartini said he always pays his taxes on time but only keeps tax records dating back 10 years.

“I didn’t have any of that documentation,” Sartini said. “I wasn’t even with that bank anymore, so I had no way of proving my case.”

He took the city to small claims court, but was told it was a matter for Superior Court. By then, his time ran out.

“I had no choice but to renew the registration, so I paid under protest,” Sartini said.

In an email, a spokesperson for the Rhode Island DMV said a new computer system the agency launched in July 2017 made it easier to link municipal tax records to the DMV database.

“I know I’m not the only one,” Sartini told Target 12. “There’s several people out there, I’m sure, that they did this to.”

Target 12 obtained DMV records on tax blocks from the 2017-18 fiscal year that show 7,806 tax blocks on Woonsocket residents in November 2017. Sartini was one of those, only learning of the block four months later.

Story continues below graphic.

Overall that year, the DMV issued nearly 121,000 tax blocks statewide.

State Sen. Frank Lombardi, who co-authored and helped pass the 2019 bill that placed a 10-year statute of limitations on several types of tax collections, called the tax block on Sartini “reprehensible” and “unacceptable.”

“Ten, 12, 14 years later … that’s unacceptable,” Lombardi said. “It shouldn’t be, and it should go away. Shame on the state for doing that.”

Lombardi said his 2019 law didn’t include a statute of limitations for vehicle taxes because there wasn’t a demand at the time, but said he now plans to explore if the law should be changed.

Tolly Taylor (ttaylor@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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