Update 12/8/2023: Andres D. Diaz and Nicole G. Chiong have each been sentenced to five years of probation after accepting a plea deal with Florida prosecutors, requiring the couple to plead guilty to one second-degree felony count each. The deal also bars the defendants from working in titling automobiles again. The agreement comes after 20 months of deliberation, and just five days before a trial on the matter was set to begin. Our original story, published December 6, can be read below.
The trial for a husband-and-wife team accused of fraudulently obtaining hundreds of titles for Japanese market vehicles will begin in Miami-Dade County on Monday, December 11, a circuit court judge determined in a pre-trial hearing last week.
Attorneys for Andres D. Diaz, 41, and Nicole G. Chiong, 35, said they will continue to negotiate with Florida prosecutors on the terms of a plea bargain. However if both sides cannot come to an agreement the case could begin proceedings as scheduled.
Diaz and Chiong owned and operated two companies, Soho Imports and J-Spec Garage, which specialized in legalizing and selling rare Japanese sports cars such as the 1998-2003 Honda Civic Type R, 1993-2002 Toyota Supra, and 1989-2002 Nissan Skyline GT-R. I followed the proceedings over the course of the past year during the reporting of my book Cult of GT-R, released in November, about the passion that enthusiasts have for the GT-R and Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) vehicles in general.
Such vehicles are difficult to legally import and federalize due to the existence of the Imported Vehicle Safety Compliance Act of 1988, commonly referred to as the “25-year law.” It states that, with few exceptions, any car originally built for overseas markets cannot be imported to the U.S. and titled for road use until it is 25 years old.
Primarily through Soho Imports, Diaz and Chiong allegedly obtained and titled hundreds of Japanese-market cars that they then sold to customers in the Miami area and beyond. Prosecutors allege that those customers were defrauded because they purchased the vehicles under the auspices of them being federalized and legal to drive in the U.S.
Gallery: 1989 Nissan Skyline R32 GT-R Auction
In fact, prosecutors say, the vehicles had been illegally imported into the country, at which point Diaz and Chiong undertook an elaborate process to forge vehicle titles and registration by producing fake documents and mimicking federal official signatures.
Defense attorneys claimed during an October hearing that their clients were not responsible for importing the vehicles from Japan, which was handled by a separate company.
The prosecution says that Diaz and Chiong knowingly created a process for circumventing the federal and state registration process. According to documents obtained via public records request, authorities said the couple obtained legal Florida titles by “utilizing a new method” of fraud.
Instead of indicating the vehicles were imported to the U.S., Diaz and Chiong allegedly presented documents saying that the cars were already in the country legally and were traveling interstate from Vermont to Florida. This would have bypassed a physical inspection requirement to title imported vehicles coming from other countries.
To back up their claim, Diaz and Chiong allegedly faked Vermont certification documents and then forged the signatures of both a local police officer and a Florida Motor Vehicle Field Operations employee. According to an arrest affidavit, authorities were tipped off when the signatures of the same officer and FMVFO employee were used to certify the titles for all 348 vehicles in question.
The faked paperwork also contained a certification stamp that can only be provided by an FMVFO regional office. During a raid of the accused couple’s home in early 2022, authorities say they found a replica of the same stamp inside the residence.
The cars in question comprise an all-star list of Japanese performance models, chiefly from the 1990s. Among them are 27 Toyota Supras, 28 Honda Civics and 31 Honda and Acura Integras. But the most prominent vehicle on the list is the Nissan Skyline, accounting for 88 vehicles in total – 46 of which are high-performance Skyline GT-R models.
Throughout hearings over the course of the past year, both defense and prosecuting attorneys have continually signaled an interest in settling the case before it goes to trial. However, a plea bargain cannot be accepted until all victims have received restitution, which is compensation for lost or damaged property. The size and scope of the case, involving hundreds of vehicles and potential restitution claims, prevented this from happening, attorneys say.
In July, Chiong’s attorney Scott Kotler indicated that the number of victims – “I would say ‘victims’ in quotes,” he said in court – was difficult to know exactly, along with the value of each individual vehicle. Authorities said at the time of arrest that the vehicles involved would have their titles and registrations revoked and would not be allowed to re-register in any state in the future, essentially forcing owners to surrender or export the cars in question.
If convicted, both Diaz and Chiong face hefty sentences. Each individual case of fraud or forgery is a felony and the charges also include multiple counts of conspiracy and grand theft auto.