Court strikes down Chapel Hill’s cellphone ban

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 05:17 PM

The state Supreme Court upheld Chapel Hill’s towing ordinance Thursday, saying it has authority to regulate towing and require reasonable signage, but struck down the town’s law banning cellphone use while driving.
The court also ruled the town cannot cap towing fees, but allowed payment by credit or debit card. It said tow operators can pass card fees to the driver.
The case was brought by George King, operator of George’s Towing and Recovery, who challenged the town’s authority to enact towing and cellphone laws. The ordinances were adopted in 2012 by the Chapel Hill Town Council, but faced legal challenges from the start.
Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said he had mixed feelings about Thursday’s ruling.
“I think it’s good news that towns and cities are able to use their police power to regulate towing from private lots,” he said. “What’s disappointing is that they removed our ability to set towing fees, which is something we’ve been doing for a long, long time.”
Towing companies can now charge as much as they want.
“The court tipped their hat to the interest of the towing company to make what they can,” Kleinschmidt said. “I understand their rationale, but it’s disappointing.”
On the other hand, he said, allowing people to pay towing fees with a credit or debit card enhances safety.
“It’s better than having some strange person pick you up in a dark parking lot in the wee hours of the morning where you know you left your car and ask them to take you to a cash machine,” Kleinschmidt said. “That’s an unsafe situation.”
Regarding Chapel Hill’s cellphone law, the mayor said he expected the court to strike it down.
“The court said exactly what I thought they would say: that the cell ordinance is beyond our authority, because the state has already enacted cellphone-use-while-driving laws.” Attorney Thomas Stark, who represents King, said he was pleased with the court’s ruling, particularly removing fee caps.
“This is a business that runs on very tight margins, and allowing operators to have a reasonable fee structure is important,” he said.