Orange County

June 12, 2014

NC Supreme Court says firetruck stop does not change Chapel Hill woman’s DWI verdict

The NC Supreme Court concluded that Chapel Hill Police were justified in arresting Dorothy Verkerk. She had argued that her constitutional rights were violated when a Chapel Hill firefighter stopped her first, worried about her erratic driving.

The N.C. Supreme Court ruled Thursday that it doesn’t matter whether a Chapel Hill firefighter overstepped his authority when he stopped an erratic driver in 2011, because police had plenty of justification to arrest her for driving while impaired.

Dorothy H. Verkerk, 54, a UNC-Chapel Hill art professor and former Chapel Hill Town Council member, admitted she had been drinking but sought to overturn her 2012 DWI conviction, citing the firefighter stop.

Lt. Gordon Shatley, a 20-year veteran of the Chapel Hill Fire Department, said later that he stopped her car that night because he feared she would have an accident. He was in a firetruck returning from a call when he saw Verkerk’s Mercedes veering across two lanes and a center turn lane.

He reported by radio to Chapel Hill Police that he was following a driver who might be impaired. Later, Shatley flipped on his firetruck siren and flashing lights. Verkerk stopped, spoke with him and drove away.

Police officers arrested her a few minutes later. Her blood-alcohol test registered 0.23 percent, nearly triple the 0.08 level that establishes, under state law, that a driver is illegally impaired.

The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial in 2013 to decide whether Shatley’s stop was an illegal search and seizure that violated Verkerk’s constitutional rights.

But in an order written by Associate Justice Bob Edmunds, the Supreme Court reinstated her guilty verdict. Police had reasonable suspicion to arrest Verkerk because Shatley had reported her erratic driving before he stopped her, and because officers made their own assessment of her intoxication, the court said.

The ruling means Verkerk’s original conviction will take effect and her driver license will be suspended, unless she decides to appeal the case in federal court.

“While we disagree with the Supreme Court decision, Ms. Verkerk is looking forward to putting this matter behind her,” said her attorney, Matthew Suczinski of Chapel Hill.

Dan Jones, the Chapel Hill fire chief, said he had hoped for a ruling that would affirm the right of firefighters and rescue workers to intercede in cases like Verkerk’s.

“I’m still encouraging my supervisors that if they see something like this occurring, that if they can safely take action to prevent possible tragedy, they should do so,” Jones said.

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