Council Approves Changes To Vehicle Towing Order

OCEAN CITY — In the wake of proposed changes to the resort’s ordinance regarding trailer parking during special events, the Mayor and Council on Tuesday approved a revision of the Ocean City Police Department’s general order regarding the towing of vehicles.

OCPD Captain Greg Guiton, who presented the proposed changes to the department’s general order, told the council on Tuesday the towing general order had not been modified since 1988 and was somewhat outdated. Guiton said the existing general order was in need of some changes considering how the resort has changed in the two decades-plus since the original was crafted.

“The 1988 policy was very vague and consisted of a single page,” he said. “After meeting with the State’s Attorney’s Office after a couple of incidents arose involving towing and inventory and searches, we came up with much broader guidelines for towing. The old order was one page and the new one we’re recommending is nine pages.”

For example, Guiton explained the proposed general order did not include any sections on scofflaws or those who chronically don’t pay parking tickets. In addition, the sections of the old order regarding the inventory of contents of a towed vehicle and the protection of private property were vague.

While the proposed general order covers the OCPD’s towing policy in general, eventually the conversation came around to the towing of oversized trailers on city streets, especially during motor vehicle-related special events. On a parallel course, Ocean City officials are working on an ordinance change requiring registered participants for special events to pay for a permit to park legally on most city streets.

The ordinance change would allow only registered participants to acquire the parking permits for oversized trailers. It also prohibits trailer parking on narrow Baltimore Avenue and sets up a fine schedule for those who don’t acquire the permit, park trailers illegally or block roadways or sidewalks. On Tuesday, the council asked Guiton for his opinion on the OCPD’s towing of illegally parked trailers.

“We’re very reluctant to do it,” he said. “There’s a certain amount of liability involved with that. There were two incidents regarding trailers on Baltimore Avenue during a recent special event and we took great pains to contact the owner.”

When questioned further, Guiton told the elected officials there were specific instances when illegally parked trailers caused public safety issues, including those blocking roadways or sidewalks, and in those cases, towing was a measure of last resort.

“If it becomes a great hazard, we will remove it,” he said. “If the danger of the vehicle in the roadway outweighs any potential liability for damage to the contents, we will tow it and remove it.”

Of course, it is nearly impossible to determine what if anything is inside the trailers, most of which don’t have windows, but many often contain expensive vehicles, motorcycles, accessories, tools and other private property. When asked about his opinion on cutting the locks on a trailer to see what was inside before towing it, City Solicitor Guy Ayres said he would recommend getting a search warrant.

Guiton said the general order includes a section on entering locked vehicles to conduct a search and it was clear on what was allowed and what was not.

“If a locked vehicle was impounded, we would not attempt to unlock it,” he said. “We would do a visual inventory to see what was in it, but we wouldn’t unlock it and go through it without a warrant.”

Council President Lloyd Martin said there were greater liability concerns than merely a damaged paint job on a vehicle or motorcycle.
“Something to be mindful of, never mind the paint job, what if we tow a trailer and the tow truck loses it, or the doors open and a vehicle comes rolling out the back?” he said. “We could be liable for a lot more if someone got injured or even killed.”

According to the revised general order, OCPD officer may tow vehicles that are impeding the free flow of vehicular or pedestrian traffic, or are considered a prisoner’s property when the driver is arrested, or any vehicle designated by law as abandoned. Officer should promptly conduct a reasonable inventory of any vehicle about to be towed in police custody and items of unusual value should be removed and turned in for safe keeping.

With regard to vehicles damaged during accidents, the owner or operator should be given an opportunity to park the vehicle legally. If unable to do so without creating a hazard, the owner or operator should be allowed to contact a tow company that can respond within 20 minutes. Guiton explained the latter was often challenging because of the resort nature of Ocean City. He said many involved in accidents are not from the area and don’t have local tow company contacts. For that reason, the department provides them with a list of licensed, reputable tow companies to respond.

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.