Local News

Judge temporarily halts Chapel Hill cellphone ban

Posted May 2, 2012 2:36 p.m. EDT
Updated May 2, 2012 6:34 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge on Wednesday issued a temporary restraining order blocking a Chapel Hill ordinance that prohibits all cellphone use while driving.

The Chapel Hill Town Council passed the measure in a 5-4 vote in March, making the use of both hands-free and handheld devices a secondary offense and requiring violators to pay a $25 fine.

It was set to take effect June 1 but has been put on hold until after a hearing on Monday in response to a lawsuit against the town about the ban. The lawsuit also challenges a town towing ordinance regulating how much tow truck operators can charge and where and when vehicles can be towed.

"It attempts to regulate a trade or business, but it applies only to limited counties and cities, and that makes it a local bill," said Thomas Stark, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of George's Towing and Recovery.

Stark said that only state law can regulate trade or commerce.

"The ordinance they passed, requires (my client) to call in before he leaves the lot before the tow and to always answer the phone if anybody calls him," Stark said. "So, he's driving down the road, and a guy comes out and finds his car towed, makes a call – (my client) has to answer that call.

Town leaders approved the policy, the first of its kind by a community in the state, despite a warning from the state Attorney General's Office that it did not have the authority to pass a town cellphone ban.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt declined to comment on the lawsuit since it is a pending legal matter. Members of the Town Council could not be reached for comment.

Under the ordinance, a law enforcement officer would have to stop a driver for another reason before issuing a citation for violating the ban.

North Carolina drivers are prohibited from sending text messages while driving, but there is no state law banning cellphone use, except for drivers under age 18.

Momentum has been building in the General Assembly for legislation that would require a hands-free device for all drivers using cellphones while a vehicle is moving.