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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Supreme Court Rolls Over Myrtle Beach’s Attempt To Regulate Motorcycle Rallies By Requiring All Riders To Use Helmets And Protective Eyewear

by Stephen P. Groves, Sr.

In a unanimous opinion released today, Aakjer v. City of Myrtle Beach, the South Carolina Supreme Court struck down Myrtle Beach’s long-running attempt to curtail motorcycle rallies in the Grand Strand city. After a number of annual and/or semi-annual bike rallies reportedly “placed a heavy burden on the local medical community, police, and other emergency responders” in Myrtle Beach, the City enacted several ordinances and/or amended existing ordinances (the “Motorcycle Ordinances”) which, among other things, required “any person riding a motorcycle [to] wear a protective helmet and eyewear” (the “Helmet Ordinance”). During a subsequent rally, a number of individuals (the “Petitioners”) were cited for violation of the Helmet Ordinance.

Since a violation of the Helmet Ordinance was considered an "administrative infraction", Myrtle Beach established an administrative hearing system to hold trials on citations charging violations of various municipal ordinances, including the Helmet Ordinance. After the administrative hearing system was later repealed, Myrtle Beach then issued each of the Petitioners a Uniform Ordinance Summons requiring them to appear before a municipal court judge.

The Petitioners brought an action in the original jurisdiction of the Supreme Court seeking “a declaratory judgment finding the Helmet Ordinance and the Motorcycle Ordinances invalid and a writ of prohibition barring the municipal court from exercising jurisdiction over the alleged violations of the Helmet Ordinance.” The Supreme Court accepted the case in its original jurisdiction before any Petitioners’ charges were adjudicated.

A. Implied Preemption

The Supreme Court noted that the South Carolina Legislature had previously “addressed motorcycle helmet and eyewear requirements in S.C. Code Ann. §§ 56-5-3660 and 56-5-3670 (2009), respectively [which] generally require all riders under age [21] to wear a protective helmet and utilize protective goggles or a face shield.” On the other hand, the Supreme Court noted the “Helmet Ordinance . . . require[d] all riders, regardless of age, to wear a helmet and eyewear.” Furthermore, even though S.C. Code Ann. § 56-5-30 (2009) later “authorized local authorities to act in the field of traffic regulation if the ordinance [at issue did] not conflict with the provisions of the [South Carolina] Uniform Traffic Act”, such authorization did not save the Helmet Ordinance. The Supreme Court concluded the Helmet Ordinance was impliedly preempted by State law, noting both the important and pragmatic “need for uniformity [wa]s plainly evident in the regulation of motorcycle helmets and eyewear.” The Supreme Court further stated:

Were local authorities allowed to enforce individual helmet ordinances, riders would need to familiarize themselves with [all of] the various ordinances in advance of a trip, so as to ensure compliance. Riders opting not to wear helmets or eyewear in other areas of the state would be obliged to carry the equipment with them if they intended to pass through a [municipality] with a [local] helmet ordinance. Moreover, local authorities might enact ordinances imposing additional and even conflicting equipment requirements. Such burdens would unduly limit a citizen's freedom of movement throughout the State [of South Carolina].

B. Implied Repeal

Additionally, the Supreme Court struck down the Motorcycle Ordinances as a whole based upon the previous repeal of the ordinances establishing the so-called “administrative hearing system”. The Supreme Court concluded that since the sole enforcement of the Motorcycle Ordinances, as an “administrative infraction”, was so tied to and intertwined with the administrative hearing system, its abolition impliedly repealed the Motorcycle Ordinances themselves.

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