N.C. Supreme Court agrees to hear Chapel Hill towing, cellphone cases

tgrubb@newsobserver.comNovember 8, 2013 

— The N.C. Supreme Court said Friday it will hear a case involving the town’s towing ordinance and ban on cellphone use while driving.

The anticipated court review moves the matter forward – but continues the temporary stay and court injunction that prevents the town from enforcing either ordinance. The next step is for both sides – the Town of Chapel Hill and George’s Towing and Recovery – to file briefs, and the case to be scheduled for a hearing before the state Supreme Court.

The case started in 2012 when George’s Towing filed a lawsuit after the cellphone rules took effect. The towing rules were scheduled to begin in June, but Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson stopped the enforcement of both rules May 2.

In August 2012, Hudson rejected the towing rules as an unconstitutional regulation of trade and said the town doesn’t have the authority to enact a cellphone ban.

The town appealed that decision to the N.C. Court of Appeals. It ruled in June that the towing rules were a valid use of the town’s power to protect the “health, safety, or welfare of its citizens.” The council had made the changes to its existing rules in response to complaints from the public about predatory towing practices. The changes required that tow zones be adequately marked with signage, that tow operators inform the police department when towing vehicles, and that vehicles not be towed farther than 15 miles outside of Town limits. The revised ordinance also set maximum allowable fees for towing vehicles from private lots.

The court also upheld the town’s cellphone ban but did not rule on the issue of whether the town has the authority to enact such a ban. The court instead said the case would have been more appropriate if a tow-truck driver had been cited for violating the ban and challenged that case in court.

The town’s cellphone ban, as written, would only be enforced if a driver is stopped for another violation. A driver using either a handheld or hands-free device behind the wheel would pay a $25 citation.

An attorney for towing company owner George King then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt has said he is looking forward to hearing what the Supreme Court has to say following a Cabarrus County decision last year that North Carolina towns only have the authority the legislature gives them.

The court’s decision will further clarify that ruling and will have far-reaching effects in Raleigh, Durham, Asheville and other cities with similar rules, Kleinschmidt said.

In the meantime, the town advises drivers to look for signs when parking and be mindful that Chapel Hill does not have an ordinance in effect regulating the non-consensual towing of vehicles from private property.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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