Illegal ATVs helped by city's lax laws

Dirt bike rider Mike Miles (center) rides along Richmond Street. (David Maialetti/Staff)
Dirt bike rider Mike Miles (center) rides along Richmond Street. (David Maialetti/Staff)
Posted: June 15, 2012

Two battered, dusty dirt bikes and an ATV sat in a far corner of the city impound lot, looking about as appealing as green meat in a butcher's case.

But when Philadelphia Parking Authority workers opened the chain-link gate to start a recent auction on unclaimed autos, crowds beelined past the sedans, station wagons, trucks and even a Lexus that was up for grabs. They gathered around the dirt bikes and quad, eyeballing engines and everything else as they shot sidelong glances at other would-be buyers to gauge the competition.

At auction's end, the dirt bikes and ATV that most likely had been confiscated from people riding them illegally in city streets and parks were bought and taken home by other men who planned to ride them illegally in city streets and parks.

Without knowing whether they work — no test drives allowed — three buyers plunked down a combined $2,550 to claim them. In cash.

While it's illegal to ride a four-wheeler or dirt bike anywhere in the city except on private property with permission, you can buy one just about anywhere in the city — including from the city itself. The PPA auctions off unclaimed vehicles two or three times a week, and the offerings almost always include a handful of dirt bikes and ATVs confiscated by police. That's added up to nearly 500 ATVs and dirt bikes sold since 2007, PPA spokesman Marty O'Rourke said.

The auctions are just one example of the city's feeble, failed fight to control the scores of dirt-bikers and ATV riders who illegally zoom around city streets and parks.

While other regions have created places for them to legally ride, or are at least addressing it, Philadelphia officials refuse to do so. "The city is not looking into developing such a park," mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald said, refusing to elaborate.

Police bigwigs forbid pursuit, saying it's too dangerous and difficult to chase dirt bikes and ATVs that easily escape by zipping up sidewalks and narrow streets, ducking into forested parks and tearing the wrong way down one-way streets. Yet ask any rider, and chances are, they have the scars and medical paperwork — and even photos and videos — to show that the frustrated rank-and-file sometimes ignore that no-pursuit policy.

"We've been chased, bumped, rammed, Tased and maced off our bikes. They even get out the helicopter, fly real low and get on the loudspeaker: ‘STOP YOUR BIKE!'" said Tay, 30, a rider who broke four teeth and had to have his jaw wired after he said an officer drove his cruiser into Tay's ATV from behind in April in South Philly and then stood over him as he lay on the ground and Tased him. The officer alerted an ambulance but left Tay bleeding in the street before paramedics arrived, he said. Tay, like most riders, declined to give his real name, for fear police would cite him and try to seize his ATV.

While many citizens have little sympathy for riders who get injured while flouting the law, others agree that the city's hands-off approach to such a pervasive quality-of-life problem is overdue for change.

"Every time we (complain to) police, they say the same thing: They can't chase them, and they urge us to call 911 to report them when we see them. But then they don't send anybody, because they can't do anything," said Natania Schaumburg, 24, an East Kensington resident and program coordinator at South Kensington Community Partners. "There doesn't really seem to be much of a solution, and the whole process seems a little flawed."

Mel Smith, who has lived on the edge of Cobbs Creek in Southwest Philly for 27 years, said he calls police frequently to report them, but the cops never come.

"The city doesn't care about the ghetto; they don't care about poor neighborhoods. The poorer your neighborhood is, the more triflin' stuff goes on that the city just ignores," said Smith, 68. "The riders know where to go and where not to go. The word is out that Philadelphia does not do anything about dirt bikes."

In the spring, police spokesman Lt. Ray Evers exhorted the public to help police nab dirt-bikers and ATV riders by reporting where they store the vehicles. Many are stolen, Evers said, adding that police could clear them off the streets for good by confiscating stolen vehicles.

But it wasn't until the Daily News began questioning the city in recent weeks about the PPA auctions, restricting sales and other possible solutions that some city officials agreed to examine the issues closer.

After learning that most dirt bikes and ATVs sold at PPA auctions end up back on the street, authorities now are reconsidering the fates of quads and dirt bikes they seize from scofflaws, Evers said.

"That is an issue; they're getting back on the streets again," Evers said. "We don't resell guns that we confiscate; we destroy them. By destroying them, we limit the supply on the street. So destroying (the ATVs and dirt bikes police confiscate) is an idea that we're looking at."

That's one way Baltimore, where "bike life" is also a summertime problem, gets them off the street.

"We send them out to our city yard and eventually they destroy them," said Baltimore police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Sometimes, Baltimore police will retrofit the dirt bikes for police use as well.

Since 2008, Baltimore police also have been allowed to confiscate any unlocked dirt bike in the city, whether it's in a front yard or on the sidewalk. Police use about 600 citywide cameras and an aviation unit to monitor the riders' whereabouts, Guglielmi said. They've even tried to get gas stations to stop selling riders gas.

Such ideas earn a thumbs-up from Ryan O'Hara, who's long been fed up with racing riders in his South Philly neighborhood.

"The sale through the PPA auctions is one of the biggest acts of hypocrisy in the city," O'Hara said, suggesting the city sell seized dirt bikes and ATVs for scrap instead. "Officials in the mayor's office have labeled dirt bikes and ATVs as a major problem, yet the city is selling them back to the operators at a discount! This process needs to stop immediately."

Still, speed freaks have plenty of other places to buy them, from corporate behemoths like Honda and Scooterland USA to independently owned auto-repair and body shops.

That bothers Rick Mariano, the former City Councilman who penned the 2004 legislation that banned the sale of pocketbikes, or mini-motorcycles.

"The big problem then was little kids riding them, so we focused on pocketbikes," said Mariano, adding that ATVs and dirt bikes zoom past his Summerdale apartment every weekend. "In hindsight, we should have done them all (including ATVs and dirt bikes in the sales ban)."

Derick Scudder, a Juniata Park pastor, agreed: "If the city government really felt like this was a problem, can't we find a way to stop them from being sold?"

McDonald said the city "will look into the issue of a sales ban." He refused to comment further. Deputy Mayor Everett Gillison couldn't be reached, and Michael R. Resnick, the city's public-safety director, referred questions back to McDonald.

If city leaders don't ban sales outright, said George Leon of the South of South Street Town Watch, they "should at least be regulated. For example, set a minimum age, like 21, and require a valid photo driver's license and point-of-sale registration. This will not solve the problem but may discourage some sales and will make offenders more identifiable."

Staff writer Jason Nark contributed to this report. Contact Dana DiFilippo at difilid@phillynews.com or (215) 854-5934. Read her blog at phillyconfidential.com.

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