Task force fights to close makeshift used-car lots

Officials say the problem is common, but dealers are difficult to apprehend

June 14, 2000|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A task force targeting makeshift used-car lots is taking its first steps toward devising strategies to quash the illegal sales while continuing a crackdown on the lots.

The fledgling group of Anne Arundel County and state officials and legitimate automobile dealers is preparing complaint forms for dealers and community groups to help identify lot locations and cars while looking at the possibility of changes in the law. It is also working on making consumers aware through a mix of police and zoning action and buyer education.

The group plans to take statewide whatever works to close the illegal lots, which pop up overnight and vanish just as quickly.

Officials estimate that the number of illegally sold cars is steadily climbing. Eighty percent of used cars advertised in Maryland reflect a practice known as curbstoning, they said.

"And nobody knows what to do about it," said Gordon March, investigator with the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's Office and task force member.

The makeshift lots are widespread - zoning officials have received complaints about seven sites in areas that include Brooklyn Park and Glen Burnie in the north, Tracys Landing and Selby on the Bay in the south, Jessup in the west and Pasadena in the east.

The Pasadena site, which over several weeks reportedly featured an 18-wheeler and a boat in addition to a dozen or more cars, was closed a few weeks ago. A 36-car operation at the Parole Plaza was shut in November.

Names of the roadside sellers rarely appear on paperwork. Dealers are neither bonded nor licensed. They generally operate in places not zoned for car lots and without a property owner's permission. The combination makes the illegal dealers hard to catch and a nightmare for unwitting buyers who have no recourse for bargains that turn out to be lemons, stolen or of clouded title.

In coming weeks, the task force will descend on an illegal lot in one of its periodic crackdowns, said assistant state's attorney Trevor Kiessling.

"The easy attack is on the property owner, but is it really all that fair?" he said. "An absentee owner doesn't know they're there. But it's unfair to neighbors who live next to it."

Typically, zoning enforcement is the extent of the attack on the illegal lots. It gets the dealers to migrate, at least for a while. But it does not put them out of business, the ultimate goal.

"The neighbors make a complaint," said Pamela A. Jordan, supervisor of zoning inspectors. "They don't want the cars there. They don't want to think these are stolen cars or that there is something wrong with them.

"There is a lot of recidivism. You can get a property owner to chase them off, but then you have a whole new group of people who come there a week later," Jordan said.

County Council Chairman Daniel E. Klosterman Jr., after hearing from the task force yesterday, said, "We don't have the manpower to have someone go out all the time" to investigate illegal dealers.

But he said he would like to see police warn potential buyers the way they speak about schemes to community groups.

State law requires anyone who sells five or more used cars in a year to be licensed.

But catching the sellers is time- and labor-intensive because it would require not only tracking down illegal sellers but also piecing together a case from a myriad of pagers, lots and cars titled in other people's names, Kiessling said. Sellers frequently dot the county with cars titled to other people, and police say some of the cars are stolen or are tied to the drug trade.

The task force is trying to determine how time-consuming sting operations would be so that it can present the information to the County Council, along with ideas for increasing penalties, Kiessling said.

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