Door-to-door sales firms often don't heed permit regulations

January 4, 2004

Regulation of door-to-door sales is left largely to local governments, and in many cases, traveling sales crews simply ignore them.

The crew that brought Rodger Broadway, Eskalene DeBorde's rapist and killer, ignored a county ordinance requiring it to register in advance, Knox County officials said.

Operating under a different name, the same sales-crew managers two years later brought Donnell Covington to LaVergne, Tenn., where he raped a 31-year-old housewife in front of her infant son. A similar ordinance was ignored there, said LaVergne Police Department Detective David Loftis, who investigated the rape case.

"They almost never bother to get the permits they are supposed to," Loftis said of traveling door-to-door sales operators.

Ironically, had Broadway been selling inside the Knoxville city limits, there were even less stringent regulations for his sales crew to follow, had its managers even been inclined to do so.

"Generally speaking, the city does not require any kind of special permit for commercial solicitation in city, but there are special requirements for soliciting in the name of a charity," said Knoxville Deputy Law Director Ron Mills.

For-profit sales operations doing business in the city are supposed to obtain a city business license or a transient-vendors permit, Mills said. No permit is required for the individual salesperson who knocks on the door.

Congressional investigations in the late 1980s found that while sales crews often do register locally when required, in many cases where they do not, they simply post bail for crew members arrested for soliciting without a permit, then move on. But it is the crewmember who is left with the record of an arrest.

And in many cases, by the time officials learn that a traveling sales crew has been operating without permits, the crew has already left town.

"There is a constitutional question as to what extent you can limit or regulate commercial solicitation," and such rules must be carefully written, Mills said. "I would not be surprised if some of these ordinances around the country would be overturned if they were challenged in court."

In Knox County, traveling sales crews are required to apply for a business license with the County Clerk's office and provide a wide range of information. That includes a description of every vehicle involved, and the name and Social Security number of every individual who will be selling, said Assistant Deputy Law Director David Creekmore.

"The applicant must also sign a waiver allowing the Knox County Sheriff's Office to check the backgrounds of all the salespeople," Creekmore said.

County Commission adopted those rules in 1997 at the urging of Commissioner Mary Lou Horner after some complaints about salesmen in Halls.

"There was one guy in particular, a big-size guy who was very pushy about getting inside homes and was scaring some women," Horner said. The man was selling cleaning products.

Oak Ridge requires transient door-to-door sales crews to register in advance and obtain a license, said Tim Stooksbury, an accounting specialist in that city's business tax office.

"We also require a photo of each person who is going to be going door to door," he said.

It is rare for such applications to be made. "We have some nonprofit groups who solicit, and they generally have an existing (permit) that they come in and renew each year," he said.

"If we really want to deal with it, why don't we simply outlaw it?" said Knox County Attorney General Randy Nichols. "I would argue that we no longer need that type of service. People no longer deliver coal or ice to our doors. I think we could find a way to do it and exempt legitimate charitable organizations."

Nichols added: "It could be like the 'no call' list for telemarketers. If we don't even want these people calling us on the phone, why do we want them knocking on our doors?"

Jim Balloch may be reached at 865-342-6315
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