Court sides with Davidson College police

ablythe@newsobserver.comNovember 11, 2011 

The case of a woman accused of driving drunk on streets near Davidson College sparked a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday that helps define the power of campus police forces at educational institutions with religious affiliations.

At issue was whether Davidson College, a school with ties to the Presbyterian Church (USA), violated First Amendment protections against the mingling of government and religion by having a police force with the power to arrest.

The state's top court ruled it did not.

"We are gratified by the State Supreme Court's decision, as we believe it reinforces North Carolina public policy that favors trained police agencies as the best way to ensure public safety on college campuses," Stacey Schmeidel, Davidson College's associate vice president for college communications, said in a statement.

The ruling could have an impact on other private schools in North Carolina with historic ties to religious groups - such as Duke University with its Methodist affiliation and Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem with its Baptist ties.

"This ruling should give other similarly situated schools the assurance they can run campus police departments without worrying about constitutional challenges," said Bradley Kutrow, a Charlotte lawyer who represented Davidson.

Original case was DWI

The legal debate stems from the case of Julie Anne Yencer, who was not a student at the private college in Mecklenburg County, when she was stopped by a Davidson campus officer on Jan. 5, 2006, and charged with driving while impaired and reckless driving.

The stop occurred on Main Street in Davidson, the small town where the school is located. Before pleading guilty in July 2008 to driving while impaired, Yencer tried to suppress all evidence.

Her claim? That Davidson was too closely aligned with a religious denomination to be allowed to maintain its own police force.

Allen Brotherton, the Charlotte attorney representing Yencer, argued the school's bylaws required 24 of its 44 trustees to be members of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Further, he said, at least 80 percent of the trustees must be active members of a Christian church.

"The court today approved delegation of the state's discreet power to search and seize its citizens to a group for which membership requires a religious affiliation," Brotherton said after reading the ruling. "Davidson College is a fine institution, but its legal identity is its board of trustees, which openly discriminates based on religious affiliation."

In his legal arguments, which won support by the state Court of Appeals before being overturned by the state Supreme Court, Brotherton cited a 1994 case involving Campbell University, a Baptist institution in Buies Creek. In that case, the court ruled that Campbell couldn't have a police force because it violated First Amendment protections.

But state law has been refined since then to require campus police officers to maintain the same minimum standards as other police officers in the state.

Davidson, a school of about 1,900 that routinely ranks among the country's top liberal arts colleges, argued that school policies and practices are not shaped by the religious beliefs held by its board of trustees.

A secular mission

The school's primary purpose, Davidson officials contended, was "secular education," and the state Supreme Court justices agreed.

Davidson officials lauded the ruling.

Davidson's affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, Schmeidel said, "has never had any influence on the way that our campus police officers carry out their sworn duties."

Brotherton said Thursday that he and Yencer were weighing whether to appeal.

Blythe: 919-836-4948

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