S.C. Supreme Court strikes down Myrtle Beach helmet law

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South Carolina’s Supreme Court has struck down Myrtle Beach’s helmet law, finding that cities can’t supersede state law to suit themselves.

“Even assuming, as the City contends, that the Helmet Ordinance does not conflict with the Uniform Traffic Act, we find that the ordinance may not stand as the need for uniformity is plainly evident in the regulation of motorcycle helmets and eyewear,” the court’s unanimous opinion states. “Were local authorities allowed to enforce individual helmet ordinances, riders would need to familiarize themselves with 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 city with a 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. Consequently, the Helmet Ordinance must fail under the doctrine of implied preemption.”

South Carolina requires only that riders under the age of 21 wear helmets. The plaintiffs in this case are all people who were cited under new helmet and eyewear regulations.

A total of 389 were cited under those ordinances, city spokesman Mark Kruea says.

“We will refund any money we have collected in fines, and those tickets will be expunged,” he says. “We will not enforce the helmet ordinance. It does not change our position on large motorcycle rallies.”

The court examined the entire set of ordinances Myrtle Beach passed in 2008 to drive rallies outside of city limits, and ruled all of them invalid except those that were later made misdemeanors. Those governed parking trailers on public streets and gatherings in hotel parking lots.

“Petitioners contend the city's enactment of the ordinance repealing the administrative hearing system caused the entire Motorcycle Ordinance scheme to fail. We agree,” the decision states.

Kruea says in light of the court’s ruling, he expects the City Council to request and approve changes to any motorcycle ordinances that are still on the books as administrative infractions to misdemeanors.

Ironically, that would appear to satisfy the court but would also increase penalties. The city ordinances called for a maximum penalty of a $100 fine for the administrative infractions, while the same offense as a misdemeanor carries a maximum penalty of $500 or 30 days in jail, Kruea says. Those ordinances govern a curfew for those under 18, alcohol consumption in parking lots and convenience store security.

The ordinances have been controversial since their passage. Despite the court’s decision, it remains to be seen if the damage has already been done for rallies. Rally crowds had been shrinking slowly before the ordinances, but fell off markedly in their wake. Offended riders vowed to avoid Myrtle Beach and spend elsewhere, and may be unwilling to return.

“You’re still going to have people who want to avoid the city because of what’s happened,” says Mike Shank, principal of Festival Promotions and longtime rally promoter. “There was also a lot of people riding through the city with helmets on this year.”

Shank’s contract to host vendors at Barefoot Landing in North Myrtle Beach expires at the end of this year, and he has not decided whether or not to renew it.

One thing he does believe: the Myrtle Beach rally likely will never be the same.

“I don’t think it’s going to end. I think it’s going to level out and there will be a certain crowd that comes every year,” Shank says. “I don’t think it’s going to get back to what it was, or if it does it won’t be for a long time.”

The decision was published this morning on the court’s web site. The case is 26825 - Aakjer, et al v. City of Myrtle Beach.