Has this ever happened to you? You take your car to a shop to get some routine maintenance done. Then, just when you were ready to pay for your quickie oil change and get out of there, the shop says there's a laundry list of things your car needs so it won't murder you on your way home.
You aren't new here, you know the drill. It's not their fault, they have to try to up-sell you on every little thing to make sure they aren't losing money on that 19.99 oil change special. Not to mention they have to cover themselves by noting every little thing that is wrong so customers can't blame them when the wheels fall off. They warned you the car was missing all of its lug nuts! You should have listened!
Since you understand the game, you politely decline the extra repairs, knowing that you can put off some of the minor items and do the more important ones yourself at home for half the cost. Not so fast! Now the service adviser is saying you have no choice. Because the brake rotors are out of spec, or the tire tread is too low or you have a taillight out, he says he cannot legally let you drive away with a dangerous car.
The reason this trick works so often is that it kind of makes sense. If a car wouldn't pass a safety inspection, it is technically not roadworthy. It is frustrating, but a lot of the time, the customer will just reluctantly agree to let them perform whatever work is necessary to get on their way.
Here's the thing: Shops have no legal right to keep your car because they say it is unsafe. Steve Lehto, a lawyer specializing in automotive law, and The Humble Mechanic agree. While you should double check since laws vary from state to state, neither Lehto or the folks at Humble mechanic have ever seen a law that allows a mechanic to hold a car for safety reasons. Lehto even points out that the state in which he practices law, Michigan, even suggests getting multiple estimates on brake jobs on the official Secretary of State's website. As Lehto says, "How could you do that if it was illegal for shop #1 to "let you" leave?"
Mechanics do have a legal way to keep your car, called a mechanic's lien, but it can only be used if they performed a service that you are unwilling to pay for. If this is the case, and you did not authorize the repairs, that is a whole different ball game, but right now, we are going to focus on the scam at hand.
So, next time a mechanic tries to convince you to authorize another repair in order to get your car back, how should you handle it? Lehto suggests you call the cops. While that is absolutely your ace-in-the-hole, you can usually resolve this situation without wasting an officer's time, not to mention your own.
Tell them that you understand the risk (make sure you really do understand the risk involved in driving away in a potentially dangerous car and even consider towing it if necessary), and offer to sign a waver that acknowledges the shop's suggested repairs and that you declined them. That is what they should have done in the first place, after all. If they refuse, then it might be time to make that call to the police.
Good luck, and stay safe out there!