Of the 50 states, only Louisi-ana prohibits banks from repossessing cars from owners who fail to meet monthly loan obligations.
That could change soon if a measure stirring in the Louisiana Legislature is passed before lawmakers adjourn for the year in June.
Separate bills passed by the Senate and, last week, by a House committee would let banks repossess vehicles without a court order. Today, only a police officer can seize an automobile.
Supporters of the legislation, including the Louisiana Bankers Association, say it would remove the expensive and time-consuming step of going to court. If a customer misses two months' worth of payments, a bank would be entitled to take the property.
"All this does is give us the same rights in this state that lenders in every other state have," said Peter Gwaltney, executive vice president of the bankers group. "We are just trying to bring Louisiana up to speed with the rest of the nation."
But critics say the measure would lead to violent confrontations. They worry that delinquent borrowers could turn on someone who tries to take their car.
"I am trying to prevent a tragedy from happening," said Robert Carter, a Democratic representative from St. Helena Parish who opposes the bill. "If this is passed, I am afraid it will be hard to keep the peace."
Rep. Carter said he introduced "about a dozen" amendments in committee that would have restricted repossessions, including one that would forbid them if a borrower had a "no trespassing" sign on the property. All these amendments failed.
Opponents argue that laws already on the books conflict with the repossession legislation. For example, in Louisiana, a car owner has the right to shoot a carjacker if it is deemed self-defense. What if a car owner mistakes a repossession agent for a carjacker and shoots him?
"There are areas of the state where you cannot send a uniformed deputy by himself because of the potential for violence," said Buddy Hodgkins of the Louisiana Sheriffs Association, which opposes the bill. "I hate to think what would happen if a nonofficer tried to do the job."
Bankers counter that the threats of violence are just political rhetoric.
"They have had this law in place in Texas for a long time, and I don't see people over there killing each other over repos," said C.R. "Rusty" Cloutier of MidSouth Bancorp in Lafayette.
Mr. Cloutier, who is president and chief executive officer of the $259 million-asset bank company, said he believes the sheriffs oppose the legislation for monetary reasons.
"The sheriffs are making a fortune by making us repossess through the courts," Mr. Cloutier said.
Mr. Gwaltney agreed: "They have a monopoly; I don't blame them for protecting it."
Both sides expect the bill to clear the House before the session ends in June.
Gov. M.J. "Mike" Foster, a Republican, has not taken a stand on the legislation, but Mr. Gwaltney said he would be "very surprised" if the governor vetoed it.