Chapel Hill towing case reaches towns across state

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2014 

— A state court’s ruling in a lawsuit challenging local towing rules has forced other communities to consider revising their own regulations.

The court’s June 12 ruling said local governments can’t tell companies how much to charge when towing cars from private parking lots. The ruling also lets tow operators charge drivers for debit or credit card payment processing fees.

However, towns can require signs warning drivers about towing, telling them whom to contact and how much it will cost to get their cars back, the court said.

Every local government will have to make sure its policy meets the court’s standards, Chapel Hill Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said.

“It would be up to their counsel to advise their elected boards as to what it means,” he said.

Several cities, including Asheville, Durham, Raleigh and Charlotte, have so-called “predatory towing” rules to address growing complaints about tow truck operators who patrol private lots, waiting to snatch up illegally parked cars.

While acknowledging businesses have a right to reserve private parking for customers, local officials also say the sight of tow trucks lying in wait can be bad for business. Among other issues, drivers also have complained about about being charged excessive fees, having their cars towed illegally or from lots lacking visible signs and tow companies that ask for hundreds of dollars in cash to return a car.

Carrboro officials were working last week to remove references to a $100 cap on towing charges and other towing-related fees in the town code. Mayor Lydia Lavelle said there were always questions about the town’s constitutional authority to pass a cell phone ban. The towing decision wasn’t a surprise either, she said.

In Durham, they are still considering what changes to make, city attorney Emanuel McGirt said. The Durham City Council amended the city’s rules in 2013 to set a $125 cap on towing fees.

Raleigh’s attorney is expected to suggest rule changes soon to the Raleigh City Council, spokesman Dan Howell said. Raleigh now caps towing charges at $100 and has similar rules to other cities regarding when police should be notified.

Among towns outside the Triangle with similar rules, Matthews city attorney Charles Buckley III said he will let that town’s Board of Commissioners know, after reviewing the case, if revisions are necessary.

“I’m sure we will act accordingly,” Buckley said.

The decision isn’t all bad news for local governments, said Trey Allen, UNC assistant professor of public law and government, and Scott Mooneyham, spokesman for the N.C. League of Municipalities.

In North Carolina, local governments only have the power that the General Assembly gives them. The longstanding perception, based on two decades of court decisions, is that courts were reluctant to let local governments act in ways not clearly defined by state law, Allen said.

The court ruling reflects a town’s interest in making sure drivers are safe if their car is towed without permission, he said. It also recognizes that signs warning drivers about towing and significant fees may reduce the potential for an angry confrontation later that could involve police, Mooneyham said.

“We see this as mostly a win for municipalities,” Mooneyham said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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