Rules against aggressive towing in Chapel Hill get court hearing Monday

ablythe@newsobserver.comMarch 10, 2013 

— A towing company known for having a quick hook is set to argue Monday at the state Court of Appeals that it should be let off the hook from having to comply with a Chapel Hill ordinance designed to curb predatory tows.

George King, owner of George’s Towing & Recovery, contends that the Chapel Hill Town Council overstepped its authority a year ago when it amended municipal rules to regulate towing and mobile phone use by drivers.

Town officials counter that state law allows them to regulate towing and cellphone use on Chapel Hill roadways.

The issue arose after Chapel Hill officials received a flurry of complaints in 2012 about aggressive towers in downtown parking lots and excessive retrieval fees.

George’s Towing, with a small office on the outskirts of town and more than a dozen video cameras trained on private lots monitored by the company, was at the root of many complaints.

One woman said she parked her car in a private lot near the intersection of Franklin and Mallette streets in the heart of downtown, went into a restaurant and came out to find her car towed and the tow-truck driver demanding cash.

Others complained about being charged as much as $250 to get their cars back from storage facilities or after a quick hooking or immobilizing boot.

The Town Council responded in February 2012 with ordinance amendments that increased the number of signs the private lot owners were required to post about towing. The municipal rule changes also required towing companies to accept credit cards for payment.

Judge rejects earlier rules

The ordinance amendments were to go into effect last year, but a Superior Court judge put a halt to them after considering a legal challenge by King.

Orlando Hudson, the chief resident Superior Court judge in Durham County, was presiding over cases in Orange County when King’s complaint arose on the docket.

Hudson ruled that Chapel Hill’s ordinance – the one regulating towing companies and another one restricting a driver’s use of mobile phones on town streets – were unconstitutional regulations of trade.

King contended that both rules interfered with his ability to make a living, that each put his business in peril.

The Town Council voted to appeal Hudson’s ruling, pushing the legal dispute before the state Court of Appeals.

Thomas Stark, a lawyer representing King, argues that state law town officials cite as the underpinnings for the towing regulations – one that allows a town to adopt rules that protect the health, safety and welfare of the community – have been used historically to prohibit brothels, massage parlors and similar sex-related businesses.

“Here the Town of Chapel Hill attempted to stretch the reach of their delegated police powers too far,” Stark argued in court documents filed in King’s complaint. “The town’s attempt to regulate towing has gone beyond protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. The business of towing is not akin to brothels, massage parlor, and the like: It is not inherently morally culpable or repugnant.

“Towing is necessary for the operation of other private business, and the towing operators have a right to earn a living, as do the businesses with which they contract. Those who park on someone else’s property have no right to that space.”

What comes next

It will be up to a three-judge court of appeals panel to decide whether people who complained about being towed from the downtown Chapel Hill lots had experiences so “repugnant” that the Town Council was within legal boundaries to put tow companies on the hook for additional regulation.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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