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Dehn Motor Sales LLC v. Schultz

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

June 26, 2013


Krauser, C.J., Graeff, Watts, JJ.



As a result of numerous citizen complaints, officers of the Baltimore City Police Department seized and towed untagged and unregistered vehicles owned by Dehn Motor Sales, LLC, a used car business that was operated and owned, in part, by Farzan Mohamed. Some of the vehicles, parked on a nearby street and in an alleyway, were impeding if not blocking traffic; others, parked in a fenced lot and on the lawn of an adjacent property owned by Dehn Motor Sales, LLC, were leaking fluids, posing both a fire and chemical hazard. Mohamed, Dehn Motor Sales, LLC, and a related entity[1](whom we shall hereafter collectively refer to as "Dehn Motor") then brought a replevin action in the District Court of Maryland for the return of the towed vehicles, which ended when the parties reached an agreement that the vehicles would be returned to Dehn Motor, subject to the condition that it not bring them back to the locations from which they had been towed.

Following the resolution of the District Court replevin action, which was almost three years after the date the cars were towed, Dehn Motor[2] filed suit in the Circuit Court for Baltimore City against, among others, the two officers who had ordered that the vehicles be towed, Officer Joseph A. Shultz, Jr., and Sergeant Anthony Proctor, [3] alleging violations of the Maryland Declaration of Rights and the United States Constitution, although no timely notice of claim had been provided pursuant to the Local Government Tort Claims Act ("LGTCA").[4] Officer Schultz and Sergeant Proctor thereafter moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Dehn Motor's claims were barred, first, by its failure to comply with the LGTCA, second, by its failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and third, by the officers' qualified immunity. We shall affirm not only on each of those grounds, but on a ground rejected by the circuit court, as the officers, contrary to what that court held, were engaged in a community caretaking function when they had the vehicles in question removed.


Farzan Mohamed was the operator and part owner[5] of Dehn Motor Sales, LLC, a used car business, located on the corner of East Patapsco Avenue and Fourth Street in Baltimore City. The business encompassed three adjacent lots: a sales lot at 330 East Patapsco Avenue, a fenced vacant lot at 3554 Fourth Street, and a single family residence at 3550 Fourth Street. In 2003, the Baltimore City Police Department began receiving complaints from citizens about "untagged, " "unregistered, " and unattended vehicles parked on the street and in an alleyway that bordered Dehn Motor's business. Those cars were reported to be blocking and inhibiting traffic.

Responding to those complaints, Officer Joseph A. Schultz, Jr., "on numerous occasions, " went to Dehn Motor's business. Each time, upon arrival, he instructed Mohamed or one of his employees to move the cars. Usually the cars were moved, but, when they were not, Officer Schultz issued parking tickets for each of the unmoved cars.

But the complaints continued unabated. In March of 2005, upon being instructed by his supervisor to "tak[e] care of the problem, " Officer Schultz then went to the car lot and observed that the alley was blocked, that cars without tags were parked on the street, and that cars were on the lawn of the house at 3550 Fourth Street.

As Mohamed was not there when he arrived, the officer informed an employee of the car lot about the complaints and told him to "get this cleaned up . . . by Monday." If it was not, the officer warned, he would bring "everybody" back with him, including the "Environmental Crimes Unit" ("ECU"), "transit and traffic, " and "inspectors."

When Monday arrived, Officer Schultz, upon personally confirming that the vehicles had not been moved as directed, left and then returned to the location of Dehn Motor's business with Sergeant Anthony Proctor, [6] his supervisor, and personnel from the ECU, transit and traffic, and zoning, along with tow trucks. Upon arrival, the officers allowed Mohamed to move the vehicles blocking the alleyway that could be moved. The others were towed.

At that time, the officers also observed vehicles parked on the front and side lawns of the house on the lot at 3550 Fourth Street. Among other things, those vehicles were purportedly blocking access to that building.[7] As Officer Schultz described it, the cars were "jammed in there" and parked "all the way up to [the] other property line." In fact, the officers, said Schultz, "had to literally climb over these cars to get to" all of the vehicles.

Officer Shultz was then informed by an ECU officer that the cars surrounding the house posed a hazard, as "fluids" from the vehicles were "seeping right into the ground." Fearing that the cars were also creating a "horrific" fire hazard because of the gasoline in their tanks and because they blocked the fire department's access to the house, and recalling that only a "week or two before" there had been a fire in Dundalk "where four houses burned down, under the same means, " Officer Schultz and Sergeant Proctor had the cars surrounding the house towed.

Officer Schultz further observed, within the fenced lot located at 3554 Fourth Street: "half cars, " "cars with the motor sticking out, " "cars sitting on top of other cars, " "engine parts, " "transmissions, " and "motors" and was informed by "zoning" personnel that Dehn Motor only had a permit for "an auto dealership and light mechanical work, not for a body shop and heavy mechanical work" and certainly not for a "junkyard."

Upon closer examination of the fenced lot, the officers found that the cars were "leaking fluids, " which were "leaching into the ground." Officer Shultz could "see the fluids leaking out of the motors . . . [and] antifreeze coming out of the radiators." When ECU detectives advised Sergeant Proctor that the "cars present[ed] an immediate . . . chemical and fire hazard to the community" and that their removal "would resolve the hazardous situation, " he had the vehicles towed to "remove the hazard." The officers were also concerned, according to Officer Schultz, that the fluids that were "running into the soil in that area, " were also "going down the storm drains" as well, expanding the threat of the hazard.

Before leaving this scene, police department personnel provided Dehn Motor with a list of the vehicles towed from the street, alleyway, lawn, and fenced lot. The list showed that a total of sixty-one vehicles had been towed.[8] Dehn Motor thereafter requested and received an administrative hearing as to each of three cars that had been towed, to contest the removal by police of that particular vehicle.[9] As a result of those hearings, it was determined that two of the vehicles should be returned to Dehn Motor and that it would not have to pay any towing or storage fees as to those vehicles, but that it would have to pay such fees for the return of the third vehicle.

District Court Proceedings

While those hearings were pending, on April 19, 2005, eighteen days after the cars had been towed, Dehn Motor filed an action for replevin in the District Court seeking the return of the vehicles. Named as defendants in that suit were the Director of the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Alford Foxx; the "Acting Tow Manager" for the Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Richard Hooper; and the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore. The suit ended when the parties agreed that the vehicles would be returned to Dehn Motor, who would not have to pay the towing and storage fees, but in return, Dehn Motor agreed that it would ...

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