The court also struck down parts of a separate Chapel Hill ordinance regulating towing. Judges said the town could not cap towing fees or prevent towing companies from passing credit card fees on to consumers.
George King, who runs a Chapel Hill towing business, sued the town in 2012 challenging both laws. King said he could not obey the town's towing laws without breaking its cellphone ban. The town had required tow-truck operators to notify police before moving a vehicle and return calls from vehicle owners within 15 minutes.
"We're very pleased," said Thomas Stark, the attorney for George King. "It was a well-reasoned decision."
The court argued that the town over-stepped its authority in prohibiting people from talking on a cell phone or using cell phone technology while driving. It noted that there are already state laws prohibiting bus and commercial vehicle drivers — as well as drivers under 18 — from using a cell phone while operating a vehicle.
"As a mere creation of the legislature, the Town of Chapel Hill has no inherent powers ... accordingly, municipalities are limited to exercising those powers "expressly conferred" or "necessarily implied" from enabling legislation passed by the General Assembly," according to the ruling.
The court also said the town had no authority to set fees for towing and said doing so affects the ability of King to earn a living. The town's ordinance required him and other towers to accept credit cards. The court upheld that rule, but allowed King and other towers to pass along fees to drivers for using a credit card.
"We're happy to use the credit cards if we can break even doing it," Stark said.
The town sought the opinion of the Attorney General before passing its cellphone ordinance in 2012. The Attorney General recommended against it and confirmed that regulating roadways was primarily a state function. The town's police chief at the time also warned that the ban would be challenging to enforce. The Town Council approved the ordinance anyway, but said that no driver could be cited by police for violating the ordinance, unless they were also being stopped for a separate violation.
Mark Kleinschmidt, Chapel Hill's mayor, said he agreed with the ruling on the cellphone ban and that the measure passed the council over his objection in 2012. But he said the court's prohibition on the fee schedule for towing was "ridiculous" and puts people retrieving vehicles at risk by paying an arbitrary sum set by towers.
Other council members have previously said the state does not go far enough in restricting cell phones when driving.
Penny Rich introduced the ordinance to the Town Council and said the intent was to protect the public, including many of the nearly 30,000 students who attend the university there.
The town should have the right to make rules to protect the citizens that elect them and the ruling is another example of the state taking decision-making power away from local authorities, she said.
"I think it's the wrong message we're sending to people that it's OK to drive around and talk on the phone and basically use your car as a telephone booth," said Rich, who is now an Orange County commissioner.