A local wrecker driver says a Georgia State Patrolman asked him to remove a political sign opposing the local sheriff.
Now attorneys are getting involved to see whether civil rights were violated when law enforcement officials accused Gary Rape, of Gary’s Wrecker Service, in Trion, of having an “inappropriate” political sign on his personal truck.
“We are investigating whether his civil rights have been violated,” Summerville Attorney Jon Dennis said.
Georgia State Patrolman Joe Massengill visited Gary’s house around 8:45 p.m. Saturday and examined a 3.5-foot wide by 2-foot tall sign on the back of Gary’s personal S-10 truck.
The left side of the sign showed a picture of Sheriff John Everett and the right side asked, “Does this a-- make my truck look big?”
Just before Trooper Massengill’s arrival, Gary received a call from the state patrol post in Cartersville alerting him that someone was on the way to talk. The tow truck driver grabbed his digital audio recorder and captured the conversation.
Any wrecker driver wanting to haul off wrecked vehicles on behalf of the state patrol are regulated. Wrecker operators undergo criminal background checks, vehicle inspections and must abide by a code of ethics.
The trooper said the political sign was inappropriate because it was unprofessional. Attorney Rex Abernathy, of Cook and Connelly Law Firm, disagrees. Atty. Abernathy is collaborating with Atty. Dennis to see if Gary’s civil rights were violated.
“Freedom of speech is part of the First Amendment. It’s the First Amendment because it ought to be first. You cannot control people’s minds and thoughts . . . When the government controls your thoughts and how you feel, you are living under a tyranny,” Atty. Abernathy said.
After a brief moment of small talk, the trooper started asking about the political sign. The trooper admitted it wasn’t on the back of a wrecker. But the S-10 had Gary’s wrecker service number on it.
“And, my boss man told me to come out here and tell you that it’s inappropriate,” the trooper said.
“Why is it inappropriate?”
“Well, because your, your business is an extension of the state patrol. You know, we do our list every year and when we run criminal histories and stuff like that, that criminal history, you’re basically employed by us . . . to tow vehicles. And you know, we run a pretty professional outfit and . . . you know he . . . you know,” the trooper said.
“Have you seen that sticker?”
“Yeah I have. I’ve had two or three people send it to me.”
“Well I know probably who sent it to you. But you know that’s on my private vehicle. It’s got Gary’s Towing on it for advertising,” Gary said.
“But I do not take that truck to calls. You know?”
The wrecker driver suspects the sheriff was upset about the sign and called the state patrol to get them to question it. Gary was correct. The sheriff says he is the one that called.
“I called them to look into removing him from the wrecker list. I sure did,” the sheriff said.
The trooper says he wasn’t speaking on behalf of the sheriff, but was sent by his superiors. They didn’t like the sign displayed next to the wrecker business logo and telephone number.
“Now you know if it’s on this vehicle or something else that you’re not, that’s not associated with Gary’s Towing, that’s one thing. But, you know, that truck is basically a billboard for your towing service. And you know, we expect you to operate a business in a professional manner,” the trooper said.
“Well I expect our sheriff to operate in a professional manner, too, and he’s not,” Gary said.
“I’m not speaking on behalf of the sheriff and I am not speaking on behalf of Chattooga County,” the trooper said. “. . . I’m speaking to you on behalf of the state . . . . You know, that’s all I can do.”
Gary’s is still on the state patrol’s wrecker list. The sheriff, however, is looking at having Gary removed from the list because the sign contains a lewd word.
“It just has got the word a-s-s on it. It’s sad that children see that . . . going up and down the road. It doesn’t bother me. He can put anything on there about me. But I’m just looking out for our kids,” the sheriff said. “That does not hurt me a bit. If anything, it will probably hurt his business. Anybody that would have done business with him in the future won’t, simply because of that.”
An official with the Georgia State Patrol Post in Rome said they are aware of the sign on Gary’s truck and they are looking into the matter.
“Well, you know, this coming from my post commander. Okay? And uh there’s been some phone calls made to Atlanta. And, you know, I was told to come by here to tell you that it’s just, that the sticker on the back of the truck, with Gary’s Towing on the side of the truck and on the back of the truck, is inappropriate.”
The sheriff says the State Patrol’s legal department is looking into the legalities of the issue.
“It’s his First Amendment rights to display it. But it’s sad that we’ve got people that are so ignorant,” the sheriff said. “There is a professional standard that is upheld by the state patrol if you are on their (wrecker) list. They are looking into it through their legal department to remove him from their list.”
The local wrecker driver says the sheriff can’t control what he does, especially when it comes to political speech that is protected by the First Amendment.
Gary says the sign is not original. It’s patterned after one that pictures President Barack Obama alongside the same wording.
“John Everett can’t control what I say or do,” Gary said.
The sheriff says the sign appeared on Gary’s truck because of a disagreement months ago. He says the wrecker operator was overcharging the county for services.
“The only reason he is mad is because he charged us $280 to tow those two vehicles from his lot to our (impound) lot . . . Gill’s (Wrecker) found out about it and offered to tow any vehicle we had for $30. From now on, I will let (Gill’s) do it,” Sheriff Everett said. “. . . We are spending taxpayers’ money and we’ve got to spend it wisely. I think that is a little too high to tow two vehicles five miles.”
The sheriff also says Gary is upset because the sheriff’s department purchased specialized equipment that can unlock people’s car doors.
“We got them for emergencies when kids are locked in cars at Walmart. (Gary) says it is cutting into his business. He charges people to open doors. I wasn’t not even thinking about that when I got them. I was thinking of the safety of the children and emergencies that come up,” the sheriff said. “Sometimes it is not about money it is about saving a kid’s life or something.”
If the wording was changed, the sheriff said he wouldn’t care about the sign.
“That’s his choice like anybody else’s. It’s probably doing me more good than him. It’s like free advertising for me. Everybody sees my picture around town. I appreciate him spending the money to ride my picture around town.”