Howard police take cabbie for $600 ride

This Just In...

April 19, 1999|By DAN RODRICKS

Don Brannan, who runs a taxi and sedan service near the rural-suburban border of Howard and Carroll counties, allows that sometimes it hurts to have an easygoing nature. "Sometimes I have a bad habit of letting things ride," he says. "Like when you drop off someone from the taxi, and they run out on ya without payin' the fare, what're you going to do? I remember a fellow who asked me to drop him off by his mailbox at night so he could pick up his mail, and all I heard was his mailbox openin' and closin' and he disappeared without payin' me. What can you do?"

Brannan indulged in this personal reflection when I asked why he gave up his 1987 Chevrolet Celebrity without a fuss.

I'm no Stephen L. Miles. But, the way I see it, Brannan had a legitimate claim to the car, despite what a Howard County police officer told him. Brannan had a piece of paper showing he was the new owner. He should have made the Howard County officer produce one that said otherwise.

Now, I think he should send Howard County a bill for about $600.

Let me lay this out for you.

In September, a light-blue '87 Chevy Celebrity showed up in automobile purgatory -- Baltimore's abandoned vehicle lot on Pulaski Highway. According to Detective John Boyd of the city's auto theft unit, the car had been reported stolen in Howard County. Following standard procedure, Boyd notified Howard County of the car's recovery by Teletype.

According to records, that happened Sept. 9, 1998. The Teletype went to Howard County's Bureau of Communications.

A week went by. Then two. Then four. Then six. The Celebrity remained in the abandoned vehicle lot. The city slated it for auction.

On Oct. 21, 1998, Don Brannan, the Carroll County cabbie, went to Pulaski Highway and cast the winning bid on the Celebrity. He paid $130 for it. He received a VR-112 form, a receipt from the auctioneer showing him to be the car's new owner.

Brannan had the Celebrity towed to Carroll County and went to work fixing it up. He installed new brakes and rotors, fixed the ignition and did some body work. He says he invested between $400 and $500 in the car.

Then, Nov. 8, 1998, a Howard County police officer came to Brannan's house in Woodbine. The visit took Brannan by surprise.

"He asked me how I got the [Celebrity] and I told him," Brannan says. "And he says to me, 'Well, that's a stolen car. I have to take possession of it.'"

And he did.

It didn't matter that Brannan had the auction receipt. Didn't matter that he'd paid $130 for the car. Didn't matter that he'd put a few hundred dollars into it. It was headed back to Howard County.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "What's up with that?" Man gets an unclaimed car at auction, how can the police take it away from him?

It seems that, after he towed the Celebrity to Carroll County in October, Brannan had discovered the car's title in the glove compartment. The document gave the name of the car's original owner and the bank that financed its purchase. To register the car, Brannan needed to make sure there were no liens on it. So, he called the bank, in Frederick, and learned that the title was clear.

For some reason, an employee of the Frederick bank contacted the car's original owners, who lived in the area, to inform them of her conversation with Brannan.

The original owners, in turn, called a man in Howard County to whom they had sold the car several months earlier.

That man apparently contacted Howard County police to let them know the whereabouts of his stolen car.

That's how the Howard County police found Brannan.

They never received the September Teletype from Baltimore police because someone in the Howard County Bureau of Communications "dropped the ball." That's according to Sgt. Morris Carroll, spokesman for Howard police.

Without that notification in September, Howard police could not act to recover the car before the auction.

OK. So where does this leave Don Brannan?

He's out a car and between $500 and $600, the way I figure it.

Several months ago, he suggested that maybe the Celebrity's owner in Howard County would consider paying him for the repairs. Brannan was led to believe that Howard County police would deliver this message for him. (He doesn't have the present owner's name. Motor Vehicle Administration records on the car are marked "private" and cannot be accessed by the public.)

Brannan only recently heard back from Howard County police -- after, he says, five months of unreturned phone calls.

"Not much we can do," a Howard police officer told him.

If you ask me, Brannan never should have given up the car without some kind of legal fight. He was too easygoing about the whole thing.

But given what's happened, I think he should send a bill for his trouble to Howard County government. Had its police force received the September Teletype, the Celebrity never would have made it to the auction block, and Brannan never would have burned money and sweat into the car.

Of course, the owner of this fine motor vehicle -- and you know who you are, buddy -- could always write a check. How many stolen cars come back with new brakes and rotors? If you'd like to do the right thing, buddy, give me a call. I have Don Brannan's address.

Pub Date: 04/19/99

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