Local News

Judge blocks Chapel Hill cellphone ban, towing rules

Posted August 2, 2012 1:09 p.m. EDT
Updated August 2, 2012 6:08 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge on Thursday invalidated Chapel Hill ordinances that prevent the use of a cellphone while driving and that regulate towing companies.

Chapel Hill in March became the first municipality in North Carolina to ban use of cellphones, including hands-free devices, for all drivers. The ordinance was to take effect June 1, but Judge Orlando Hudson issued a temporary restraining order in May to prevent the town from enforcing it.

In a brief court hearing Thursday morning, Hudson made his temporary order a permanent injunction, ruling that state laws governing the use of cellphones in cars supersede the town's ordinance.

The judge also issued a permanent injunction against towing regulations that the Chapel Hill Town Council adopted in February. He said the regulations violated the state constitution.

The rules, which came in response to concerns about predatory towing, set fees towing companies could charge, required them to accept credit card or debit card payments and required them to inform Chapel Hill police before towing any vehicle. Also, impound lots couldn't be located more than 15 miles from town.

George's Towing & Recovery challenged the ordinances, arguing that their drivers needed to use cellphones on the road and that the requirement to inform police before towing a vehicle conflicted with the phone ban.

Tom Stark, the attorney for the towing company, said Hudson's ruling "is really, in most respects, a straightforward case."

Local drivers had mixed opinions on the cellphone ban being overturned.

"I think it's probably safer for people not to be driving with their cell phones. I don't necessarily know whether or not it needs to be regulated," Alex Ahearn said.

"I think they do have the power to enforce it. They can enforce that just like they can enforce not buckling your seat belt or not texting while driving," Lucian Crockett said. "But it's also a gray area. What if they say you can't eat while you drive?"

Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said Chapel Hill officials will have to review the written ruling before deciding what to do next. The town could appeal the decision or possibly rewrite the ordinances to address the judge's concerns, he said.

The mayor said he was more concerned about the impact on the towing ordinance.

"We are disappointed," Kleinschmidt said in a statement. "Towns and cities across North Carolina have been reasonably regulating towing companies for a long time. ... We will continue to find ways to protect our citizens and visitors from predatory towing practices that have resulted in multiple complaints."