I frequently receive calls from people asking about whether or not an Oregon car dealer can lawfully sell a vehicle that has a "Service Engine Soon" light illuminated. As with many legal issues there is not a clear cut answer to this question. Typically it is unlawful for a vehicle dealer to sell a vehicle that has the service engine soon light illuminated to a person that will be registering the vehicle in the Portland or Medford Metro Region. In other words, in most cases if a dealer sells a vehicle to a person living in certain places then the vehicle cannot have a service engine soon light illuminated. If the purchased vehicle has a service engine soon light illuminated then it is most likely a violation of the Unlawful Trade Practices Act if the vehicle will be registered in the Portland or Medford Metro Region. (ORS 646.608 (1)(u) via Oregon Administrative Rule (OAR) 137-020-0020 (3) (o) see Commentary)
Here is a breakdown of the law:
The Law: OAR 137-020-0020 (3) (o)'s Official Commentary states: "When a dealer sells a vehicle to an individual that is registering the vehicle in a metro area that requires that the vehicle pass DEQ emissions testing to be roadworthy, the dealer must ensure that the vehicle can pass the DEQ emissions test at the time of sale."
The DEQ Inspection: The Oregon DEQ operates a Vehicle Inspection Program in the Portland and Rogue Valley areas of Oregon. In these areas, an emissions test is required when registering or renewing a vehicle with Oregon DMV. (ORS 803.350 (4)) The DEQ notes vehicles are the number one source of air pollution in Oregon. Emissions can lead to high smog levels and contain air toxics, carbon monoxide and greenhouse gasses, which can have a variety of effects on Oregonians. The DEQ claims the vehicle Inspection Program is a successful, cost-effective way to reduce air pollution and maintain good air quality.
The Service Engine Soon Light: The "Service Engine Soon" light or "Check Engine Soon Light" are lights that are intended to alert drivers there is a problem with the vehicle's On Board Diagnostics (OBD). Sometimes the warning light is simply an illuminated engine symbol. These lights often illuminate when there is an issue with a key engine component or the emissions system. That is why they are called Malfunction Indicator Lights (MIL). If MIL lights blink or flash then it may indicate a serious engine malfunction. Some of these issues are quick fixes, but many times they are not. When there is a problem then the vehicle will issue a "Diagnostic Trouble Code" (DCT) and store it in the vehicle's computer memory. This code aids a qualified service technician in diagnosing and repairing the problem.
The DEQ Inspection and The Service Engine Soon Light: The DEQ will not issue a certificate to a vehicle that has a Malfunction Indicator Light (MIL) illuminated. This is due to the fact the DEQ tests the vehicle's On Board Diagnostics (OBD) on vehicles that are 1996 or newer. The OBD is a Computer that tracks if the vehicle has any issues. The OBD monitors misfires, the fuel system, certain engine components, the catalytic converter, the oxygen sensor and heater, and EGR valves. The OBD will trigger the MIL if any of these systems have a problem. As a result, the vehicle cannot pass DEQ if the MIL is illuminated because the MIL indicates there is a problem with the vehicle's key components or emissions systems. Therefore, a vehicle with a MIL light illuminated is not "roadworthy" as mandated by (OAR) 137-020-0020 (3) (o).
Where are the Metro Regions requiring a DEQ Emissions Test: The DEQ has specific boundaries for the Metro Regions requiring testing. The Metro Regions requiring DEQ inspections are areas surrounding Portland and Medford (aka Rogue Valley Area). If you live inside those boundaries and will be registering your newly purchased vehicle then your vehicle must pass a DEQ inspection in order to be "roadworthy."
Not All Vehicles Need to Pass DEQ In Order to Be Registered: Some vehicles do not need to pass the DEQ inspection due to the vehicle's age, type, or where the vehicle will be registered. For more information see DEQ Web-Site or OAR 340-256-0300.
What if The Service Engine Soon Light Illuminates Shortly After Purchase: A service engine soon light that illuminates shortly after purchase is often indicative of a recent "reset" of the OBD. Sometimes a vehicle's OBD can be reset by simply removing the battery. Also "diagnostic trouble codes" can be reset. If that is done the MIL will often be turned off once the battery is reconnected. The vehicle then needs to drive through a driving cycle to determine if there is a problem. Sometimes this may take a few miles, other times it may take a week or so. The vehicle's OBD will indicate it is "not ready" if the vehicle is re-diagnosing any issues and is in a drive cycle. If the vehicle's OBD indicates "not ready" at the DEQ then this is a good indication the vehicle's OBD has been reset recently and prior to the sale. This may be a violation of ORS 646.608 (1), OAR 137-020-0020 (3), ORS 815.305, and other state and federal regulations.
The Law Prohibits Disconnecting or Altering Pollution Control Equipment: If a person disconnects the battery in an effort to reset the OBD then they may be breaking the law. It is against the law for a person to disconnect or permit someone to disconnect vehicle air pollution devices. It is also against the law for a person to modify or alter factory installed pollution control systems in a manner that reduces its efficiency or effectiveness. There are some exemptions to this law. (See ORS 815.305 for details)
There are many issues that can arise if a vehicle is sold with a service engine soon light illuminated. Sometimes it is not illegal for a dealer to sell a vehicle with a MIL illuminated, while other times it is. It is best to consult with a lawyer at 503.224.1658 if you think you were sold a vehicle unlawfully. At Ross Law LLC we regularly represent consumers that have issues with vehicles being sold with service engine soon lights illuminated. Also, please remember this post is not considered legal advice, call a lawyer for legal advice. Furthermore, the law is constantly changing, so please do not rely solely on this post. Rely on the text of the actual laws, regulations, and rules that apply to your situation.