Judge Throws out Harford Delegate’s Suit Against Sheriff Over Towing

… Impallaria’s actions were politically motivated, defense lawyer tells court …



6:19 PM EST, December 15, 2011

A judge in Harford County Thursday threw out a lawsuit against the county sheriff brought by a state legislator who claimed the sheriff has failed to prevent the withholding of personal property and license tags by local towing services.

Del. Richard Impallaria filed the suit as a mandamus action against Sheriff Jesse Bane on July 28. Under mandamus, the plaintiff is asking the court to compel a public official, in this case the sheriff, to perform duties prescribed by law.

After several prior postponements, the case was finally heard in Harford County Circuit Court in Bel Air where retired Baltimore County Circuit Judge Barbara K. Howe dismissed Impallaria’s claim with prejudice. By the judge’s ruling, Impallaria can’t refile the suit, but he can appeal Thursday’s decision to a higher court.

At the start of the hearing, Steven Freeman, Impallaria’s lawyer, requested a postponement or dismissal without prejudice — meaning the suit could be refiled — telling the judge he was unprepared for the hearing because he had just entered his appearance.

Howe denied both requests, as well as a dismissal request from Scott Curtis, a member of the Maryland Attorney General’s legal staff, who represented Bane and who claimed that Impallaria did not have legal standing. Although Howe agreed that Impallaria did not have standing to file the writ as part of the Harford County legislative delegation, the judge ruled he did have standing as a private citizen. Impallaria represents legislative District 7, which includes parts of western Harford County and eastern Baltimore County, and he lives in Harford.

Curtis argued that Impallaria filed the writ of mandamus as part of a political move and was trying to use the court process to force Bane to answer a political question about whether the sheriff has a blanket policy not to enforce what Impallaria has referred to as “theft” by towing companies.

Curtis also maintained that Impallaria wanted the courts to interpret the decision to make an arrest as an administerial duty for the sheriff when, in fact, arrests are discretionary.

Howe agreed. In giving her decision to dismiss the case, the judge said everything described in court was discretionary, including Impallaria’s request to have Bane post a legal notice to potential victims of thefts and whether to add or remove towing companies from the police approved list.

Following the dismissal, Bane said he would be happy to get back to work because the lawsuit has been distracting.

“I want to get back to my job as sheriff to protect the people of Harford County,” he said.

In the event that a towing company were to withhold personal belongings prior to payment of a bill, Bane said he always tries to mitigate the situation among the parties first, but he also encouraged people to go to the District Court commissioner to see about filing charging documents if they feel their belongings have been taken.

History of the dispute

Prior to the hearing, Impallaria held a press conference outside the courthouse Thursday morning to discuss the lawsuit and his allegations against Bane.

Two years ago, Impallaria said, he was in an accident and his vehicle was towed. When he returned to T & S Towing, of Abingdon, Impallaria said the towing company allegedly withheld his personal property, as well as his license plates, and did not allow him to retrieve it from the vehicle until his towing bill was paid.

Stephen Markey, a representative of the towing company, also attended the press conference and disputed Impallaria’s claims.

Markey, who said his clients are considering filing a suit of their own against Impallaria for defamation, said T & S Towing allowed the delegate to collect his personal property but had held the tags based on a Maryland State Police directive. The directive, according to Markey, gives towing companies the authority to hold a car until the bill is paid and considers the tags as part of the car.

Impallaria said he planned to call Maryland State Police troopers to testify that the company’s claim is not true; however, the hearing that followed did not get that far, and no troopers were called to testify.

Harford County is the only jurisdiction, Impallaria said, that does not enforce the law to keep tow companies from what Impallaria says is “theft” and “extortion.”

In filing his lawsuit against Bane, Impallaria said he wanted the sheriff to enforce the law and stop towing companies, including ones police call, from keeping personal property to force payment of their bills.

“I’m hoping we don’t even have to go into the courtroom,” Impallaria said.

His aim, he said, was to meet with Bane beforehand and to reach a resolution that would include the sheriff saying he will enforce the law; telling his deputies to enforce it and towing companies to comply with it; and posting an advertisement in the newspaper letting people know they may have been victims and what they can do about it.

Impallaria also said he had a video with tow companies admitting they withheld tags in order to ensure payment from people, which he likened to a form of “extortion.”

“There’s absolutely no reason for tow companies to take the tags,” he said, “and there’s every reason for the owner of the car to [have them].”

Copyright © 2011, The Baltimore Sun

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