OCEAN CITY – A resort commission voted last week to uphold the suspension of a tow license pending adjudication of criminal and civil citations against a local tow company.
Last Friday, the Ocean City Police Commission voted unanimously to uphold Police Chief Ross Buzzuro’s decision to suspend a tow license held by 1st Street Towing. Buzzuro told commission members last week the suspension, issued on Aug. 4, was based on the results of a criminal investigation into the company’s towing operations.
“There have a number of violations that we’ve uncovered that resulted in a combination of 49 criminal and civil violations …,” he said. “That led me to Aug. 4, when I made the decision to suspend their license at least throughout the rest of year, pending adjudication.”
Ocean City Police Department Officer Harry Miller said his investigation into 1st Street Towing began in June of 2020 after receiving a complaint against the company.
During the course of the investigation, Miller said he recorded 47 incidents and multiple violations – including incomplete tow slips and affidavits, illegible signatures, unauthorized tow drivers and missing contracts between the tow company and property representatives.
“The reason for these documents to be filled out completely is if a person who has a vehicle towed believes it was done unlawfully, they have a right by the town ordinance to have a tow hearing,” he told the commission last week. “Without the required documents, or the illegible documents or missing information, a proper tow hearing cannot be conducted. So these forms are in place to protect the residents and visitors of the Town of Ocean City from being taken advantage of by a tow company or business.”
In one instance, Miller asserted 1st Street Towing had made an illegal tow from a midtown hotel, as the property contained no blue tow signs and the business had no written contracts with the company. Both, he noted, are requirements outlined in the city code.
During Friday’s hearing, Cpl. Ryan Flanagan requested the commission uphold the police chief’s suspension. He noted he’s had a working relationship with the company for years and was involved in a criminal investigation against 1st Street Towing in 2019.
“After several times of me educating, trying to get compliance with these laws at every turn, they let us down,” he said.
Flanagan added that he had also received a requested plea deal from Paul Abu-Zaid, attorney for 1st Street Towing owner Maath Salem.
“The fine appropriate in this matter would be over $54,000, and they propose to us to accept the $500 payment,” he said. “They have let our citizens and visitors down with their illegal acts, and I hope the suspension is upheld.”
During Friday’s hearing, Abu-Zaid requested the commission modify or reverse the chief’s suspension, which extends through January 2022.
“He’s looking at a suspension that’s essentially half of a full year of a license,” he said. “So there’s substantial financial hardship associated with that. Not to mention the drivers, who could potentially be out of work.”
Abu-Zaid also argued against some of the alleged violations involving incomplete affidavits.
“The deficiencies, nine out of 10 times, are rectified by the tow slip that is right on top of it,” he said.
Abu-Zaid added the only documentation required for a tow in the town’s ordinance was a tow slip.
“There’s no requirement in the code that there should be an affidavit,” he said. “In fact, the word affidavit doesn’t appear anywhere in the code. I would suggest in the event the city wants to use a form affidavit, mandate a form affidavit and complain about deficiencies in the affidavit, somewhere in the code should say there should be an affidavit.”
Abu-Zaid also presented commission members with a signed towing contract between the company and the midtown hotel. But when asked what date the contract was signed, 1st Street Towing driver Robert Dunlap said it was after the alleged towing violation.
Salem urged the commission to reconsider his suspension. He said his company followed the law.
“We love this town and have been in this town for over 30 years,” he said. “We do respect the law.”
Council President and commission member Matt James, however, asked why the company would submit a plea request.
“If your client was adamant there was no wrongdoing, why did they offer a plea of guilty?” he said.
Abu-Zaid said a plea was offered in the interest of resolution.
“They understand there are some mismanagement issues here and they take responsibility for that,” he said. “So I think it was a very reasonable offer.”
After deliberations, the commission voted unanimously to uphold the suspension based on the testimony and exhibits heard during the hearing. The commission also recommended Buzzuro revisit all civil citations against Salem’s wife and company drivers. The commission agreed to entertain requests to reconsider the suspension should the criminal and civil cases be adjudicated prior to Jan. 31.
“Moving forward hopefully things will be straightened out …,” Buzzuro said. “We have 40-plus tow companies that we deal with. We don’t do this all the time. This is actually my first time.”