Lawyer sues to end ‘live-stop’ after police strand daughter

Posted: March 31, 2011

Danielle Sheller planned to spend last Friday afternoon with her fiance at a West Philadelphia florist, looking at flowers for their wedding.

Instead, on the way, police pulled Sheller over, citing an expired registration for the car she was driving. The officers immediately had the car towed and impounded under the city's "live-stop" statute, aimed at keeping illegal drivers off the streets.

Then, according to Sheller, the police drove off, leaving Sheller and her fiancé on the corner of 58th Street and Woodland Avenue, in a neighborhood unfamiliar to them.

Sheller, 27, said that she had asked the officers to wait until someone could come to get them, but that the officers refused and even laughed about it.

Sheller's father, Center City lawyer Stephen Sheller, who owns the car, didn't think it was all that funny.

He and his daughter are suing the Police Department and the Parking Authority, arguing that the officers violated the department's rules when they left the couple on the street.

The lawsuit, filed this week in Common Pleas Court, also alleges that the live-stop law is unconstitutional.

"The law is clearly illegal," Stephen Sheller said. "It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that. It amounts to an unreasonable seizure, and they shouldn't be getting away with it."

Lt. Raymond Evers said the Police Department could not comment on pending litigation.

Sheller and his daughter are seeking an injunction against the law, as well as restitution and damages for themselves and others whose cars have been towed under the statute.

Live-stop was implemented in parts of the city in 1998 as an effort to keep illegal drivers off the streets and possibly to help lower Philadelphia's high auto-insurance rates. In 2002, the law went into effect citywide.

Thousands of cars are impounded under live-stop each year - close to 23,000 in 2010 alone, Evers said.

The guidelines regarding speeding tickets or other such infractions give police officers the freedom to make judgment calls, depending on each situation. But the law states that police officers must impound any unregistered cars, Evers said, as well as vehicles driven by anyone with an invalid or suspended license.

"We don't allow officers to use their discretion," Evers said.

The statute also mandates that officers are not to "abandon" occupants of impounded cars: "It shall be the duty of every investigating officer to insure the safety of these occupants by either offering to transport the occupants home or to another address . . . transporting the individuals to the nearest police district . . . or if requested, by transporting the occupants to the nearest public-transportation hub."

Stephen Sheller, who specializes in personal-injury and class-action lawsuits, said that his daughter often used his car and that, when she recently moved to West Philadelphia, he mistakenly mailed registration-renewal information to her previous address. The registration lapsed.

About 4 p.m. last Friday, Danielle Sheller, a first-grade teacher at the Spring Garden School, and her fiancé were driving on Woodland when a police car pulled them over near 58th. According to the lawsuit, an officer told Sheller that her registration was expired, then took her license and other documents to the cruiser.

Within minutes, a Parking Authority tow truck arrived to take away the car, according to the lawsuit, and the police officer returned with a pink "live-stop" slip.

Sheller, upset, told the officer that her mother was nearby and asked whether police could wait until someone came to pick them up, the suit says. The police officers refused, the lawsuit states.

"Instead, they told Ms. Sheller that she would have to 'find a cab or an El.' . . . Police officers laughed at Ms. Sheller while she grew increasingly and visibly upset and shaken and continued to cry."

Sheller called her father, who said he immediately went online and renewed the car's registration. But that last-minute fix wouldn't have solved the problem, Evers said.

"What comes up on the screen from the DOT in Harrisburg," he said, "that's what the officer is going to go with at the time."

Countered Stephen Sheller: "Other jurisdictions give you a ticket for having an expired registration. You get a ticket, and you go to a hearing. That's what should have happened here."


Contact staff writer Allison Steele

at 215-854-2641 or asteele@phillynews.com.

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