Rhode Island’s Kei Car Owners and DMV Are Headed to Legal Battle

Between the 25-year wait and potentially unscrupulous companies like MotoRex, being an import fan in the US can be tough. However, after all the paperwork is in order, these classics should be safe once they get here, right? As it turns out, not necessarily. Recently, Maine started revoking legally imported Mitsubishi Delica registrations. And now, the Rhode Island DMV is trying to do something similar with kei cars. But their owners won’t let go without a fight.

The Rhode Island DMV is trying to de-register legally imported kei cars

A silver 1992 Daihatsu Hijet kei car van in a parking lot
1992 Daihatsu Hijet kei car van | Cars & Bids

Kei cars and trucks stand out amongst the JDM forbidden fruits now available to US enthusiasts mostly due to their diminutive dimensions. But size isn’t the only thing appealing about them. Many kei trucks, for example, have 4WD, making them genuine workhorses. And while some kei cars are regular commuters, there are also sports cars like the mid-engine, gullwing-doored Autozam AZ-1. There are even kei camper vans, some of which feature functional faucets and microwaves, Autoblog says.

In short, there’s a variety of kei cars that can be imported to the US. And, just like a Skyline GT-R or ‘90s Civic Type R, they’re governed by the 25-year import law.

Theoretically, as soon as a specific car becomes 25 years old, it can be imported and registered in the US without needing safety-, emissions-, and lighting-related modifications. However, that law only applies at the federal level, Jalopnik notes. Individual states can set additional requirements if they choose to. Or, indeed, modify their existing regulations. And it appears that the Rhode Island DMV is going with option #2.

Revival Motoring podcast host Chuck Whoczynski owns two kei cars: a Honda Acty truck and a Daihatsu Mira TR-XX Avanzato hatchback. Both cars were imported legally and have been on the road for over two years. However, the Rhode Island DMV recently contacted Whoczynski and instructed him to hand in his kei cars’ plates, The Drive reports. And he says that other kei car owners in the state have received similar instructions.

In short, the Ocean State’s DMV appears to be pulling a Maine. However, for all the bark, these instructions might not have any legal bite.

Those Rhode Island kei car owners seem to have the law on their side, though

The Drive says that the Rhode Island DMV’s kei car registration argument hinges on two references.

The first is a specific chapter of Rhode Island’s motor vehicle laws regarding low-speed vehicles on public roads. It’s these kinds of laws that govern ATV registration. The second is a recommendation released by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, a non-governmental association that represents various American and Canadian officials involved in motor vehicle laws. This recommendation “advocates banning ‘mini-trucks’ from highways” if they can’t meet Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards, The Drive explains.

In addition, one of Whoczynski’s listeners whose friend allegedly works at the DMV obtained images of an internal memo. This memo instructs officials to not process registration requests for kei cars and trucks because they don’t meet FMVSS.

But while these justifications seem legit, legally, they’re not exactly air-tight, The Drive says. For one, that legal chapter, Chapter 31-19.4, is about low-speed vehicles—neither of Whoczynski’s kei cars are registered as such. Secondly, the NHTSA sets the FMVSS, not a state’s DMV—and 25-year-old cars are exempt from meeting those standards. That’s exactly why enthusiasts wait 25 years to import vehicles from overseas.

Also, regarding the AAMVA’s recommendation, The Drive notes that Rhode Island has no laws forbidding ‘mini-trucks’ from operating on public roads. Oh, and guess who’s on the AAMVA’s board of directors? The Rhode Island DMV’s administrator, Walter Craddock.

Furthermore, Rhode Island’s Chapter 31-2-19 appears “to allow aggrieved car owners like Whoczynski to appeal DMV decisions via a process that forces the DMV into a district court,” The Drive reports. That would force the state to legally justify itself. And the evidence suggests that it might not be able to.

As of this writing, only Rhode Island is going after its kei car owners. So, theoretically, cars in other states are safe from this headache. At least for now.

Still, taken with what’s happening in Maine, what happens over the next few months and years could have significant ramifications for the US import scene. If other states decide to take similar actions, it could make the 25-year import law irrelevant. And not for the enthusiast-friendly reason.

It’s safe to say that many will be watching what unfolds in Rhode Island very closely.

Follow more updates from MotorBiscuit on our Facebook page.

RELATED: Having Trouble Getting Your Car Tagged? Call Up the Vermont DMV