Yesterday the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed a Court of Appeals decision regarding a UNC—Chapel Hill art professor arrested on a DWI charge after a Chapel Hill firefighter pulled her over.
The state's high court sided with the original trial court ruling, which declared that the intoxicated driver, Dorothy Verkerk—who is also a former Chapel Hill Town Council member—was rightfully arrested.
However, the Supreme Court declined to rule on what is perhaps the most interesting part of the case—specifically, whether a firefighter has legal authority to pull over a driver suspected of being intoxicated. Last fall the Court of Appeals had ruled on that exact point, determining that the firefighter's decision to pull Verkerk over violated her 4th amendment rights governing improper seizures. Firefighters, the appellate judges ruled, do not have the same authority as law enforcement.
But yesterday the Supreme Court judges ignored the firefighter's decision to pull Verkerk over, shrugging it off as something that did not factor into the evidence supporting Verkerk's eventual police charge.
On the evening of May 27, 2011, Verkerk went to a party, where she drank wine. During her drive home on Rt. 15-501, she was spotted by Gordon Shatley, a lieutenant with the Chapel Hill Fire Department, who became concerned about her erratic driving. He called the Chapel Hill Police Department and continued to tail Verkerk. When she drifted between lanes, nearly striking a bus, Shatley activated his emergency lights and siren. Verkerk hit the curb, sending sparks shooting into the air, and came to an abrupt stop.
After Shately and Verkerk spoke for 10 minutes, she unexpectedly drove away. At about the same time, Chapel Hill police officers arrived, spoke with Shatley, and went to look for Verkerk. They eventually found her and questioned her. She did poorly during field sobriety tests. The officers cited her for DWI.
In a motion to suppress during her 2012 court hearing, Verkerk argued that firefighters do not have legal authority to conduct traffic stops. The judge denied her motion, which she appealed. Last year in a split-decision the Court of Appeals sided with her, and the State appealed to the Supreme Court.
In yesterday's opinion, the Supreme Court focused solely on the police response, concluding that the officers acted appropriately based on Shatley’s tip. “The record demonstrates that sufficient other evidence was presented to establish that the Chapel Hill police had reasonable suspicion to stop defendant based upon Lt. Shatley’s observations of defendant’s driving that he transmitted to the Chapel Hill police before activating the lights and siren,” wrote the judges.