Auto task force ready

Coalition aims to crack down on illegal used-car lots

Hunting `curbstoners'

Officials say problem is common

cases are difficult to prosecute

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 county and state officials and independent auto 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 police and zoning action and buyer education.

The group says it plans to take statewide whatever action works to close the illegal lots, which can 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," or illicit roadside sales, they said.

"And nobody knows what to do about it," said task force member Gordon March, an investigator with the county state's attorney's office.

The makeshift lots are widespread. Zoning officials have received complaints on seven sites, including 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, a boat and about a dozen cars, was closed a few weeks ago. A 36-car operation at Parole Plaza was shut in November.

Names of roadside sellers rarely appear on paperwork. The sellers 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.

`Lot of recidivism'

"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."

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

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

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

A first offense is punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine; the penalties double with subsequent offenses. Zoning violations carry fines of $50 to $500 a day for property owners.

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 it can present the information to the County Council, along with ideas for increasing penalties, Kiessling said.

Independent dealers

The Maryland/Delaware Independent Automobile Dealers Association Inc., which is part of the task force, wants to see consumers better informed. It is looking at programs such as one in Ohio, where every person who gets a driver's license or a vehicle title is given a buyer-alert brochure, said George N. Manis, the group's executive director.

The organization has 110 members. But there are more than 1,600 legitimate used-car dealers in the two states. They don't enjoy having their reputations sullied by curbstoners who take their business, Manis and others say.

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