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Danielle Sheller, et al v. City of Philadelphia

October 2, 2012

DANIELLE SHELLER, ET AL., PLAINTIFFS,
v.
CITY OF PHILADELPHIA, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Joyner, C. J.

MEMORANDUM & ORDER

Before this Court are Defendant Philadelphia Parking Authority's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. No. 12), Plaintiffs' Response in opposition thereto (Doc. No. 18), Defendant's Reply in further support thereof (Doc. No. 19), and Plaintiffs' Sur-Reply (Doc.

No. 21). For the reasons set forth in this Memorandum, the Court will grant Defendant's Motion in part and deny it in part.

I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

This case is a class action dispute over the City of Philadelphia's Live Stop policy. The Plaintiffs provide factual allegations for four class representatives to highlight their claims, which the Court recounts below. In each case, the Plaintiffs contend that their vehicle was impounded pursuant to Live Stop despite the availability of "adequate, legal, and safe parking" where the vehicle could have been left immobilized, thus enabling the owner/operator to have a hearing with Traffic Court before towing and storage.

Plaintiff Danielle Sheller was driving her father's vehicle on Friday evening, March 25, 2011. Ms. Sheller was stopped because of an expired vehicle registration. While law enforcement officers checked Ms. Sheller's license and the vehicle insurance and registration information, a tow truck arrived at the scene. Ms. Sheller contacted her father during this incident and he instantly registered the vehicle through the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation ("PennDOT") website. The officers refused to speak to Mr. Sheller and the Philadelphia Parking Authority ("PPA") towed the vehicle to a PPA impound lot. The Shellers were unable to obtain a hearing within twenty-four hours because this incident occurred on a Friday evening and Traffic Court is closed on weekends. Mr. Sheller appeared in Traffic Court on Monday and had to pay a total of $224.80 for towing and storage fees. Additionally, a Global Positioning System device was allegedly stolen while the vehicle was in the PPA's impound lot.

Plaintiff Earl Johnson was driving to work at approximately 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, February 19, 2011. Mr. Johnson had a limited license allowing him to drive to and from work only, while at all other times his license was suspended. Mr. Johnson was pulled over for not using a turn signal. A tow truck arrived at the scene while law enforcement officers investigated Mr. Johnson's license, vehicle registration and proof of insurance. The officers informed Mr. Johnson that they would take his vehicle because he had a suspended license. Mr. Johnson explained that PennDOT permitted him to drive for the limited purpose of travel to and from work; nevertheless, the car was towed. Mr. Johnson was unable to obtain a hearing in Traffic Court within twenty-four hours because the towing occurred on a Saturday. Despite the dismissal of his citation by the Traffic Court, Mr. Johnson was required to pay approximately $244.80 in towing and storage fees to retrieve his vehicle.

Plaintiff Brian Walsh was driving his 8-year-old son to the emergency room on Friday evening, March 19, 2010 when he was stopped for having an expired registration. The PPA towed and impounded Mr. Walsh's vehicle. Mr. Walsh was unable to obtain a hearing within twenty-four hours since this occurred on a Friday night. Mr. Walsh had to pay "hundreds of dollars" to the PPA to retrieve his vehicle.

Nicolette Wilson was driving to church on a Sunday morning in November 2009 when she was pulled over. The law enforcement officer checked her license and vehicle registration and insurance, and then informed Ms. Wilson that her registration had expired a month earlier. Momentarily, a tow truck arrived and the car was towed and impounded. Ms. Wilson was required to pay "hundreds of dollars" in towing and storage fees in order to obtain possession of her vehicle.

Plaintiffs Danielle Sheller and Stephen A. Sheller initially filed a Complaint on March 30, 2011 in the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department ("PPD"), officers of the PPD, Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey, and the PPA. The City and PPD Defendants filed a Notice of Removal on April 5, 2011. Subsequently, Plaintiffs were granted permission by this Court to file an Amended Complaint. The Amended Complaint removed Mr. Sheller and added three plaintiffs, all of whom represent a class of vehicle owners or operators "who have had or the [sic] future will have their motor vehicles towed, impounded, and/or searched by the PPD and the PPA in a 'Live Stop' and thereby incur unreasonable fees and penalties" or "who have had or in the future will have their vehicles impounded without an opportunity to appear before a judicial officer within 24 hours as required by statute following a Live Stop." (Am. Compl. ¶ 85, Doc. No. 11). Due to an agreement between the City, the PPD Defendants, and the Plaintiffs, the City and PPD Defendants are no longer parties to this action, leaving only the PPA.

Plaintiffs bring this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Their Complaint alleges that Defendants violated state and federal due process protections by their implementation of the Live Stop policy, which describes the manner in which the PPD implements Pennsylvania Vehicle Code, 75 Pa.C.S. § 6309.2. Allegations against the PPA include violations of the due process guarantees provided by the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution and of Article I, §§ 1, 8, and 9 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. Specifically, Plaintiffs assert that the following actions cause injury to vehicle owners/operators: "(a) unlawful towing and impounding of motor vehicles without an opportunity for a hearing within 24 hours as required by statute, (b) unreasonable searches and seizures..., © towing vehicles without immobilization as required by statute, and (d) imposition of unreasonable towing and impound fees without adequate judicial recourse." (Am. Compl. ¶¶ 95, 115, Doc. No. 11).

The PPA contends that it acts solely as a towing agent under Live Stop and does not make the decision whether a vehicle will be immobilized, towed, or impounded. (Def.'s Br. in Supp. of Mot. to Dismiss, at 11, Doc. No. 12-2). The PPA also contends that it does not determine the conditions for release of an impounded vehicle, such as whether fees must be paid, whether the vehicle owner is entitled to a refund, and whether a vehicle should be released to its owner, as those determinations are left to the Philadelphia Traffic Court. (Id.).

The issues presently before the Court primarily concern (1) whether the PPA causes the deprivation of the motor vehicle by the act of towing and (2) whether the Plaintiff's complaint states a claim against the PPA for constitutional ...


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