Published: Aug 02, 2012 05:56 PM
Modified: Aug 02, 2012 05:56 PM
DURHAM - Chapel Hill’s mayor and town council will regroup after a judge overturned the town’s new rules outlawing all cell phone use while driving and regulating towing.
Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson ruled Thursday that Chapel Hill’s ban on both handheld and hands-free cell phone calls was pre-empted by the legislature, which already regulates the use of cell phones while driving.
Hudson also ruled that Chapel Hill’s towing ordinance constituted “regulating trade” and therefore is unconstitutional under the state’s laws. The town had set fees and required tow truck companies to accept credit cards and report all tows to the town, among other measures, in response to complaints about “predatory towing” downtown.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and the Town Council will now consider drafting a new towing ordinance in line with Hudson’s order. The town could also decide to appeal the judge’s decision.
Former Town Council member Joe Capowski, who helped champion the cell phone ban, said Thursday’s ruling belies the dangers of talking and driving.
“Nothing that happened in that courtroom this morning changed the fact that driving while talking on a cell-phone is as dangerous as drunk driving,” he said. “It is going to get banned, just like drunk driving is banned, but not before a lot of people die.”
Thomas Stark, the attorney representing the plaintiff, George’s Towing and Recovery, said he was “pleased” with the court’s decision.
“We felt like it was a straightforward issue,” Stark said. “We will continue to do business, comfortable that the town of Chapel Hill cannot enforce these ordinances.”
Town of Chapel Hill Attorney Ralph Karpinos left the courtroom without answering questions from reporters. Efforts to reach him for comment later were unsuccessful.
Karpinos had advised the Town Council that the cell phone ban, which would have been the strictest in the nation according to his research, was ultimately a matter for a judge to decide.
During the hearing, he argued that “there is no case law to say either of these ordinances are invalid” and that “the General Assembly’s failure to act (on banning all cell phone use while driving) in this matter shows they left the door open for local action.”
However, Assistant Attorney General Jess Mekeel wrote in November that the state has the “preemptive authority to regulate cell phone use by motorists in North Carolina.”
Kleinschmidt said he was surprised by Hudson’s rulings and worried about a lack of towing rules going forward.
“I’m concerned that the Town of Chapel Hill doesn’t have a regulation to protect our citizens from predatory towing,” Kleinschmidt said. “Right now the people deserve to have an ordinance in place.”
Kleinschmidt, who voted against the cell-phone ban in February, added: “It’s always been a debatable issue, and we will see that debate continue. We will wait on (Hudson’s order and take the appropriate steps in response.”
Early this year, the Town Council voted on improved towing regulations, including requiring towers to report each tow to the police before leaving the property.
A month later the council approved the cell phone ban in a 5-4 vote. The law was to take effect June 1.
George’s sued the town, arguing that its drivers needed to use cell phones while driving and that by “regulating trade” the new towing rules were unconstitutional.
Stark said then that the town lacked the authority to pass such an ordinance.
After a hearing in May, Hudson issued an injunction, putting a hold on both ordinances but adding that the plaintiff had “a very strong likelihood of success based on the merits” of his case.
The state already makes it illegal for drivers under the age of 18 to talk on the phone, for bus drivers to use phones and for anyone to text while driving.