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Supreme Court to Review Tow Truck Regulation


WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court said Friday it will consider restoring the power of cities and counties to regulate tow truck drivers to prevent them from charging exorbitant rates or snatching illegally parked cars.

Dozens of major cities, including Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis and Philadelphia, have adopted such laws over the last 30 years. Tow truck operators are required to obtain city permits and follow basic rules.

Police were eager to stop independent towers from racing through the streets to be first at the scene of a disabled vehicle. Motorists were also interested in having tows that were safe and charges that were reasonable.

But the tow truck operators have successfully challenged many of these municipal ordinances, saying they violate the federal laws that exclusively regulate trucks and freight carriers. Congress intended to shield these interstate trucks from local rules and regulations, and a surprising number of courts have said the federal motor carrier laws trump the municipal ordinances governing tow trucks.

Two years ago, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals knocked down Santa Ana's ordinance regulating tow trucks. Last June, another U.S. court of appeals invalidated the towing ordinance in Columbus, Ohio.

But several cities appealed, and the Supreme Court agreed Friday to review the Columbus case.

The high court will hear arguments in City of Columbus vs. Ours Garage and Wrecker Service, 01-419, in April and issue a ruling by late June.

After meeting in their first conference since the holiday break, the justices announced they would hear seven other cases as well. Several of them are appeals by the Justice Department.

In a Florida case, the court will decide whether police officers can question passengers on interstate buses and ask them about searching their bags for drugs. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta ruled that this police conduct amounted to an "unreasonable seizure" because the passengers were not free to walk away.

On streets and sidewalks, pedestrians are free to ignore police officers who want to search them, so long as there is no evidence they have done anything wrong.

But the situation is different on buses, the appeals court said. If officers make "a show of authority," passengers assume they must cooperate and allow their bags to be examined.

On Feb. 4, 1999, two Tallahassee police officers boarded a bus and walked down the aisle. They showed their badges and told passengers they were looking for drugs.

"Do you have any bags on the bus?" one officer asked Christopher Drayton. He pointed to a green bag overhead and gave his permission to have it searched.

"Mind if I check you?" the officer continued. When Drayton lifted his hands, the officer patted his thighs and felt several hard bags. They were full of cocaine.

Drayton and another man were charged with federal drug violations, but the appeals court threw out the evidence on the grounds that the men were illegally searched.

In his appeal in U.S. vs. Drayton, 01-631, Solicitor General Theodore B. Olson urged the high court to uphold the legality of such "consensual interactions between police officers and citizens," saying they are crucial to "the national effort to combat the flow of illegal narcotics and weapons."

In addition, the court will take up a drug case from the Mexican border area to decide whether a criminal defendant has a right to know certain information before pleading guilty.

Since 1963, the law has required prosecutors to tell defendants who are on trial about key information that might show they are innocent.

Last year, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, on a 2-1 vote, said the same rule applies to people who are considering whether to plead guilty. The decision came in the case of Angela Ruiz, who drove across the border from Mexico with 66 pounds of marijuana in her car.

In his appeal in U.S. vs. Ruiz, 01-595, Olson said the 9th Circuit's disclosure rule would force "a radical change" in current practices and might "endanger government witnesses" by revealing details about drug investigations.

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