Chapel Hill can seek signs, but not limit towing fees, cell phone use

tgrubb@newsobserver.comJuly 1, 2014 

— Downtown parking scofflaws won’t get a reprieve from high fees anytime soon, but they will get new warning signs.

The Town Council voted 7-1 last week to remove a $150 cap on towing fees and allow companies to charge towed drivers for debit and credit card processing fees.

The action followed a state Supreme Court ruling June 12 that upheld a 2012 lawsuit challenging the rules and the town’s ban on using cell phones while driving.

The court agreed with the town, however, that warning signs can be required to list, among other things, possible towing fees, contact information and a notice that debit and credit cards are accepted. Companies also must give police a list of fees and let them know when a car is towed.

The council also voted 7-1 last week to repeal the cell phone ban. Council member Matt Czajkowski said he opposed both changes out of principle. The town could have avoided a lawsuit by not banning cell phones in the first place, he said.

“I’ve been told that (the towing rules would have been challenged) anyway or you can’t link it to the cell phone ordinance,” he said, “but it just so happens that when the cell phone ordinance got passed and it was used, being essentially impossible for the tow companies to comply with the cell phone ordinance, they filed suit against both. Nowhere else in North Carolina has there ever been a suit filed against this.”

The ruling is now forcing other local governments to review their own towing fee caps.

Council member Sally Greene said the council shouldn’t feel sorry for trying to address local concerns. The Court of Appeals unanimously supported the town, she said. The Supreme Court order overruled that decision.

“There are always, in issues like this, where we’re willing to go out on something of a limb to do something in the interest of our constituents ... two sides to a legal question, and that’s what happened here,” Greene said.

While Greene was not on the council when the towing rules passed, both she and Czajkowski supported a cap on towing fees in 2008. The rules went unchallenged until the council also passed the cell-phone ban in 2012.

In the lawsuit, George’s Towing and Recovery owner George King claimed the cell phone ban made it illegal for drivers to immediately answer calls about towed cars. Not answering the phone violated the town’s towing rules, the lawsuit said.

Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson suspended both regulations on May 2, 2012, and ruled against the town that August. When the town won its appeal of Hudson’s ruling last year, King filed an appeal with the N.C. Supreme Court and won.

Attorney Thomas Stark said it could cost King a couple of thousand dollars to post the signs in each lot, or an additional $30 to $35 per towed car. The maximum fee that George’s Towing now charges is $180, he said.

Grubb: 919-932-8746

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