Beaufort County and Hilton Head Island might regulate tow trucks more strictly after the driver of a wrecker was charged with shooting a man to death during a dispute Christmas Eve.
Staff workers at the county and town are researching towing laws around the state and will present their findings in February.
That research was sparked by the Bluffton incident that began about 8:30 p.m. when Preston Ryan Oates put an immobilizing wheel boot on a minivan parked on the street in the Edgefield neighborhood outside Bluffton. Carlos Alberto Olivera, 34, asked Oates to remove the boot, saying the van had only been parked there for a few minutes. Oates said he would remove the boot for $300. Both men were armed, and when the argument escalated, Oates shot Olivera six times -- four times in the back, once in an arm and once in the head -- killing him, according to the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office.
Oates, 27, faces charges of manslaughter and a weapons violation.
Hilton Head Island Town Councilman Bill Harkins said it's worth considering whether city ordinances could made towing less stressful and confrontational.
"That stress, I think, breeds volatility, and when that occurs, bad things happen to good people," Harkins said.
County Councilman Jerry Stewart said he wonders if codified rights for vehicle owners would defuse similar situations.
Proposals have included:
Both the county and the town are just beginning their research, so it's not clear what action, if any, might be taken.
"I'm looking forward to a good discussion on the issue," Stewart said.
HORRY COUNTY CASE STUDY
Beaufort County is studying a towing ordinance passed last year by Horry County, home to Myrtle Beach.
Arrigo Carotti, Horry County attorney, said the change was prompted by complaints from residents and tourists that towing practices were unfair.
"The Horry County Police Department fielded a lot of calls," Carotti said.
Towing companies sometimes had insufficient proof that drivers were parked illegally, he said. High-traffic areas with confusing parking rules were used like a hunting ground, where tow trucks would wait for unsuspecting drivers and swoop in minutes after a car parked illegally.
It was difficult to avoid conflict when drivers found their cars in the process of being towed.
"If the owner of the vehicle saw what was going on and confronted the tow truck operator, there was nothing they could do short of following the process of the tow truck carrying their vehicle to some facility," Carotti said.
Fees, he said, could be exorbitant and were sometimes jacked up simply for arguing with the tow truck driver.
"It was indiscriminate and totally discretionary on the part of tow truck companies," Carotti said.
Rules passed in late 2009 have helped, he said.
Fees are now capped based on the type of equipment required for the tow. The maximum charge is $175.
If the vehicle owner sees the tow in progress and approaches the tow truck driver, he can pay a half-price "no-tow" fee. If the truck has just arrived and has not yet attached the car, the fee is just $25.
The prices were set after research on similar caps in other municipalities, Carotti said.
He said the county included local towing companies in the process and made sure they could still make a profit.
Some companies, though, protested the rules.
The (Myrtle Beach) Sun News reported that a group of towing companies drove their trucks to a County Council meeting to argue their case.
"There are only a few companies that were overcharging, and I've asked several times for the names of those companies, but no one has been able to give it to me," one towing company owner told the council. "We just want this to be fair."
No comparable tow truck regulation exists in Beaufort County.
Local governments maintain lists of approved towing companies, which are called in a rotation when a vehicle is to be towed from public roads or lots. In some cases, municipalities have additional rules or set prices for companies they call.
But Beaufort County, the city of Beaufort, the town of Bluffton, the Town of Hilton Head and the town of Port Royal do not cap fees on cars towed from private lots, nor do they regulate contracts between homeowners associations and towing companies.
Harkins said he asked town staff to compile other areas' best practices for Hilton Head to consider.
Ladson Howell, Beaufort County staff attorney, said he is researching the issue at the request of the county Public Safety Committee.
Howell said he intends to solicit opinions from area towing companies.
"I plan to meet with them and then I plan to ask them to meet with the committee," he said.
Any ordinance passed on Hilton Head would apply only within town limits; one passed by the county would only apply to unincorporated areas. That could subject residents and towing companies to a patchwork of separate rules and protections.
Officials Bluffton, Beaufort and Port Royal say a towing ordinance is an option, but their councils have not yet indicated they want one.
"Obviously as a result of what happened a couple weeks ago, that's something we're going to have to take a look at," said Port Royal town manager Van Willis. "The fact that somebody could slap a $300 boot on somebody's vehicle for parking in the street, to me, is a little absurd."
Beaufort city manager Scott Dadson said it's possible the city will address towing, but added that, "it hasn't raised itself to a level here that it's an issue."
REGULATION OR IMPOSITION?
Wayne Cairnes, owner of Hubba Bubba Towing of Beaufort, said it seemed unfair to single out towing for additional regulation.
"I don't think the county needs to really set my prices," Cairnes said. "If the county's going to set my prices, they've got to set every other business's prices in town, too."
He said the $300 that Oates wanted to charge for the removal of the boot seemed "unreasonable," but said that any price cap would have to be set with towing companies in mind.
"You've got to let us make enough to make money -- to do what we've got to do," Cairnes said.
Another towing company official north of the Broad River, who did not want to be identified, said before moving a vehicle, the firm contacts the police, who run the vehicle's identification number and send an officer to the scene. It would solve the problem, he said, if all towing companies did the same.
"They need to get a case number from the police before any vehicle is moved," he said. "It kills all the birds with one stone."
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said wrecker drivers already are required to report towed vehicles to law enforcement. That way, if a car is reported lost or stolen, he said, "we can run a quick check to see if it was towed."
But owners of private roads can make their own parking rules, he said, which his officers cannot enforce.
"Those roads in Edgefield are private roads," Tanner said. "The only traffic enforcement that we can perform is either a DUI or reckless driving."