Jon Campisi Oct. 10, 2012, 8:43am

A federal judge in Philadelphia has granted in part, and denied in part a motion to

dismiss that had been filed by the Philadelphia Parking Authority in a class action case challenging the agency’s Live Stop, vehicle-towing program.

Class members assert that the PPA violates state and federal due process protections by its implementation of Live Stop, which is when vehicles are towed on the spot if it is discovered registration has lapsed or motorists are driving without valid licenses.

Danielle Sheller and her father, Stephen, initiated litigation against the City of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Police Department and the PPA back on March 30, 2011, with the filing of a lawsuit in Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas.

An amended complaint removed Stephen Sheller as a plaintiff, and added three other plaintiffs, all of who had, or will potentially have, their vehicles towed by the PPA in conjunction with the policy.

The city and police department are no longer parties to the action, with the PPA remaining the sole defendant.

The case had since been removed to the federal court.

In their complaint, the plaintiffs allege that the PPA is violating state and federal law with respect to unlawful towing and impounding of vehicles without an opportunity for a hearing within 24 hours, as required by statute; unreasonable searches and seizures; towing vehicles without immobilization as required by law; and imposition of unreasonable towing and storage fees without adequate judicial recourse.

The class members offer similar allegations. For example, most contend their vehicles were impounded on the spot after expired registrations were discovered, yet they never received a chance to have a hearing within 24 hours, because many of the towing incidents occurred on a weekend day, and courts didn’t open until Monday.

In its motion to dismiss, the PPA contended that it acts solely as a towing agent under Live Stop, and does not make the decision whether or not a vehicle will be immobilized, towed or impounded, with those decisions made by the city and police officials.

Therefore, the PPA argued that it is not liable for constitutional violations.

The court had to decide whether the PPA causes the deprivation of the motor vehicle by the act of towing and whether the plaintiffs’ complaint states a claim against the PPA for constitutional violations in connection with their role in the Live Stop program.

The PPA’s motion to dismiss contended that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim.

Under federal law, a state actor can be liable for constitutional violations if there is a “causal link” between the state action and the constitutional violation.

According to the Oct. 2 memorandum and order by U.S. District Judge J. Curtis Joyner, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the plaintiffs in the case alleged that vehicle owners pay the PPA for towing and storage regardless of whether the towing is invalid, and that no process exists to receive a refund or waiver of these fees and costs.

Such alleged actions by the PPA constitute a “causal factor” in the due process violations alleged by the plaintiffs, Joyner wrote.

“Even if we accept the act of towing as constitutional, the PPA would be liable for a constitutional deprivation because the act of towing and storing a vehicle while knowing that to do so, as alleged by the Plaintiffs, deprives an owner/operator of the ability to seek a refund or waiver of associated fees and costs,” Joyner wrote. “This is particularly so when the towing is determined invalid by Traffic Court. For these reasons, the Court cannot dismiss all of the claims against the PPA under the PPA’s theory that there is no causal nexus to support a constitutional violation by the PPA.”

Joyner further determined that the towing, itself, is not unconstitutional, but that does not resolve the issue of the lack of procedural safeguards for releasing a towed and stored vehicle without incurring towing and storage fees and costs, especially when the vehicle’s owner or operator is determined to be innocent of traffic violations.

The judge ended up determining that no evidence has been presented regarding any procedure for obtaining a towed and stored vehicle without paying fees and associated costs.

Therefore, Joyner wrote, the court cannot grant the PPA’s motion to dismiss in full, “because the Plaintiffs have sufficiently stated a claim that they were denied due process when they had to pay the towing and storage fees regardless of whether they had committed traffic violations.

Joyner ended up dismissing all claims against the PPA except the federal and state constitutional due process claims.

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