Del. Richard K. Impallaria has filed a lawsuit against the Harford County sheriff, claiming towing companies are committing "theft" and "extortion" and the county's chief law enforcement officer should do something about it.

The suit is the latest turn in the legislator's running dispute with Harford County towing companies and Sheriff L. Jesse Bane that began early in 2010 when Impallaria's Ford Ranger was wrecked in a two-car accident and towed. Impallaria has been steamed up since then about what he claims was the tow company's attempt to hold onto his personal property and his license plates until he paid his tow bill. His account of the incident has been disputed.

Since that experience, Impallaria has written letters, held meetings, filed legislation and gotten an opinion from the Maryland attorney general.

"I wouldn't be a state lawmaker if I let people push me around or take advantage of me," said Impallaria, a three-term Republican who represents District 7, which includes portions of Baltimore and Harford counties.

The suit filed on July 28 asks the court to order Bane to "cease these unlawful practices" described in the suit as "theft" of property and "extortion" of money. The suit does not include details.

Bane declined to comment on the case, referring questions to the attorney general's office, which is handling the matter because Bane holds a state office. The lawyer assigned to the case has not yet had a chance to review the suit, according the office, which has until Aug. 29 to file a response.

The attorney general's involvement adds a twist to the case, as Impallaria is using an opinion from that office to support his claim against Bane.

In a three-page opinion dated May 23 and written at Impallaria's request, Assistant Attorney General Kathryn M. Rowe wrote that there may be occasions when police can "deny access" to a car during an investigation. Otherwise, "I find no authority for a towing company to retain personal possessions or the registration tags for vehicles that have been towed."

In an interview, Rowe repeated a caveat she raised in the opinion, that "my advice was general, not about Mr. Impallaria's situation specifically."

Impallaria said in an interview last week that T&S Towing of Abingdon held his property and his license plates after a two-car accident in January 2010. He told a Maryland Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April that he felt threatened when he went to retrieve his belongings at the tow yard.

The tow company owner, Anastasios Dernelakis, tells a different version of the story, insisting in an interview that it was Impallaria who was "very abusive and very threatening."

Dernelakis said the company never asked Impallaria for money and gave him free access to his personal belongings, including his laptop, and the legislator was never threatened. Dernelakis said the insurance company for the other driver involved in the accident told him not to release the license plates until a decision had been made about damages to Impallaria's truck. Nevertheless, he said Impallaria took the plates off the truck.

Tow operators say the standard practice is to return personal property immediately to the rightful owner. License plates are a different matter, said Joe Neukum, president of the Harford County Towers Association. He said tow companies usually hold onto license plates until their bill is paid or have proof that the owner's insurance will cover it.

George Feilinger, vice president of the association, told a state Senate hearing in April that the plates are also kept on the car as proof of who owns it.

Feilinger spoke at a hearing on a bill to regulate towing companies in Harford County, the second such measure in two years co-sponsored by Impallaria. Neither one has become law.

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com

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