Police department's strict towing policy prompts complaints

Police department's strict towing policy prompts complaints

TABOR CITY, NC (WECT) - It's an unusually strict towing policy that's generating both complaints and praise in Tabor City. After receiving a complaint from one of our viewers, we learned that Tabor City police will have your vehicle towed if officers catch you driving with a suspended license, or without insurance.

Most law enforcement agencies in our area simply issue citations for those offenses – and will allow you to have a friend pick up your vehicle if you don't have proper credentials to drive it yourself. But Tabor City says that doesn't do enough to get drivers who are breaking the law off of our roadways.

"If you have a car on the road that has no insurance on it, it's a hazard," Tabor City Police Chief Donald Dowless told WECT when questioned about his department's tow policy.

He said if an uninsured driver, or even an unlicensed driver is allowed to keep driving after a traffic stop and has an accident, they'd likely have no ability to pay for property damage or injuries they caused. Dowless said the town could also be held liable for not doing enough to keep that driver off the road.

Although unusual, the towing policy in Tabor City is completely legal according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Motor Vehicles. Additionally, the UNC School of Government notes a case from 2008, State v. Brill, where the NC Court of Appeals upheld an officer's decision to have a defendant's car towed because the driver did not have insurance.

The court ruled that such vehicles pose a hazard to the public. The School of Government says the same "hazard to the public" logic could be applied to a driver who is not licensed, or who is driving on a revoked license.

Most local law enforcement agencies we contacted will allow another properly licensed driver to drive the vehicle home in that situation, in part because of the financial burden of towing when a vehicle is able to be driven.

But the Tabor City Police Department says allowing violators to keep their keys doesn't go far enough to keep unlicensed drivers from getting back behind the wheel a short time later.

"People keep driving after their licenses are revoked and killing people," Dowless said. "They have no respect for themselves and they sure don't have respect for nobody else."

Dowless said Tabor City has seen a drop in crime all across the board since they started heavily enforcing insurance and license requirements for drivers when he joined the department in 2006.

In the last year, 185 cars have been towed in the tiny town near the South Carolina border, the vast majority of them because the drivers did not have insurance or a valid license.

While some residents of Tabor City applaud the chief's efforts to keep the roads safe, others call the tow policy a racket. The town mayor co-owns one of the 6 towing companies currently on the rotation to tow vehicles, and critics say his family is being enriched by the strict tow policy.

Mayor Royce Harper says his family has owned the NAPA Tabor City Auto Parts business since 1979. Harper joined the town council in 1991, and the policy to tow improperly licensed and uninsured drivers has been on the books for at least a decade.

Harper says it's not uncommon for elected leaders to also own businesses, and sometimes those businesses do work for the government. It can be even more prevalent in small towns where there are few competing service providers.

Harper says there is no conflict of interest in his business being part of the towing rotation dispatched by Columbus County 911. Harper estimates the average tow costs the driver about $150 in Tabor City.

Using that number as a guide, they Royce family's auto parts and towing business made less than $5,000 last year towing vehicles of unlicensed and uninsured drivers.

"The mayor is making no more than anyone else. It's a free enterprise world," Dowless said when asked about Harper's business benefiting from strict towing enforcement.

Even if there is no actual conflict of interest, perceived conflicts of interest have prompted some agencies, like the North Carolina Highway Patrol, to prohibit troopers from taking on secondary employment with a towing company, or with any businesses that is associated with a towing company.

There are also policies restricting troopers' family members from associating with tow companies that are on the Highway Patrol's towing rotation list in the same county where their relative is assigned to patrol.

While Tabor City's tow policy is the strictest of any we could find in Southeastern North Carolina, Dowless told us his officers will allow some leniency if a person's license just recently expired. That also applies to recently expired registration, but if your registration expired a year ago, that's not okay.

"The law is the law. Everyone needs to abide by the law. If you are not than you are breaking the law," Dowless said.

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