In this earlier blog post, I provided a then-current overview of criminal law and related legislation enacted by the North Carolina General Assembly this legislative session. Since then, there have been a few more bills enacted that affect criminal law, criminal procedure, and motor vehicle law, as well as some amendments to previously enacted bills. Continue reading
Tag Archives: motor vehicle laws
The fields of the Capital Area Soccer League were a sea of blue again last night. Players of all ages shelved their regulation orange jerseys and wore blue—Laura Yost’s favorite color—instead. They wore blue last week too. Last week’s blue was to support fellow soccer player Laura, who was hospitalized after she was critically injured in a car accident on her way to school. Sadly, last night’s blue was to honor her memory. Fifteen-year-old Laura died early Tuesday morning.
Laura, a sophomore at Panther Creek High School in Cary, rode in the back seat of her friend Spencer Saunders’ car last Tuesday. Her older brother Ryan rode in the front passenger seat. Spencer was turning left off of Highway 55 onto McCrimmon Parkway in Cary when a dump truck traveling in the other direction crashed into the passenger side of his vehicle. Reports indicate that the accident was Spencer’s fault as he failed to yield to the oncoming dump truck when turning left as required by G.S. 20-155(b). No charges have yet been filed in the case, but police reportedly have talked to the district attorney about charging Spencer.
Failing to yield when turning left is an infraction, not a crime. The maximum penalty is $100. A person cited for this offense may pay a $35 fine and court costs and resolve the charge without having to appear in court. But now that Laura has died, Spencer might be charged with a more serious offense—misdemeanor death by vehicle—a Class A1 misdemeanor, for which a first-time offender could receive up to 60 days imprisonment. Because Spencer is 16, he may be charged with this crime and tried as an adult.
Anecdotally, I’ve heard district court judges say that misdemeanor death by vehicle is among the most difficult misdemeanor crimes to sentence. By its very definition, the crime involves a violation of any State traffic law or local traffic ordinance, other than impaired driving, that causes the death of another. On one side of the scale, there often rests a defendant with no criminal intent. On the other, there is a lost life. Sometimes the victim’s family views a harsh sentence as necessary to justice. Sometimes the victim’s family sees the ends of justice differently. I’ve never been a prosecutor, so I don’t know how much the initial charging decision is based on the wishes of family members. In my time as an assistant federal public defender, I learned that there were rules of thumb about certain degrees of loss. If a client was alleged to have fraudulently obtained money that exceeded a certain amount, pleas for reduced charges or deferred prosecution were rebuffed, regardless of the client’s youth, lack of criminal history, or other mitigating circumstances. It may be the same for district attorneys when a life is lost as a result of traffic violations that otherwise would not even cross the threshold of criminal culpability. But perhaps the lines are not so clearly drawn.
One might expect that regardless of what charges may come, Spencer Saunders already is suffering mightily. He has expressed profound remorse in posts to his Twitter account that have been reprinted in the news. Spencer is 16. He is an inexperienced driver. He made a mistake that turned out to be fatal for his friend. Should criminal charges follow?
The prospect of criminal charges against Spencer would be no different under the raise the age bill that passed the NC House last session. While House Bill 725, if enacted, would have expanded juvenile jurisdiction to 17 year olds in its first year and 18 year olds in its second, it would have done so only for misdemeanors and infractions other than violations of the state’s motor vehicle laws.
Cary Police Lieutenant Steve Wilkins said that they were going to allow the “dust [to] settle” with the families before proceeding with any charges. So we don’t yet know the State’s view of what justice requires in this tragic case.
The television news magazine 20/20 aired video footage last fall of North Carolina law enforcement officers speeding on Interstate 40 near Raleigh. Reporters followed the police vehicles to determine whether they were chasing a suspect, rushing to a crime scene, or otherwise involved in an emergency. None were. One officer drove directly to a doughnut shop. Another, who was wearing a t-shirt with “Driving Instructor,” printed on the back drove to the Highway Patrol Training Academy. A reporter confronted the officers as they emerged from their vehicles about the kind of example they were setting for citizens. But, in addition to setting a bad example, were these officers also violating the law? Or may officers in marked vehicles drive without regard to the rules of the road?
When the speed limit doesn’t apply. G.S. 20-145 provides that the speed limitations in Chapter 20 do not apply to vehicles “when operated with due regard for safety under the direction of the police in the chase or apprehension of violators of the law or of persons charged with or suspected or any such violation.” The statute similarly exempts from speed limitations vehicles of fire department and emergency vehicles when traveling in emergencies. The court of appeals has interpreted G.S. 20-145 as including “not only police in direct or immediate pursuit of law violators or suspected violators but also police who receive notice of the pursuit and respond by proceeding to the scene for the purpose of assisting in the chase or apprehension.” State v. Flaherty, 55 N.C. App. 14, 22 (1981). Thus, this statute authorizes law enforcement officers to drive vehicles at speeds that exceed the otherwise applicable limit but only when they are chasing or seeking to apprehend suspects.
What about the other rules of the road? No other statute explicitly exempts vehicles operated by law enforcement officers from the rules of the road. Yet common experience suggests there must be an exception. Surely officers are allowed to change lanes without signaling, drive over medians, pass in no-passing zones, make unauthorized u-turns, and drive on the shoulder of the road when responding to an emergency and when such a maneuver can be safely made.
Common law exception. The North Carolina Court of Appeals in Collins v. Christenberry, 6 N.C. App. 504 (1969), recognized an exemption from otherwise applicable motor vehicle laws for law enforcement officers operating vehicles “with due regard for safety” in the chase or apprehension of suspects. The court in Collins expressly rejected the defendant’s argument that the legislature’s enactment of the express exception in G.S. 20-145 evidenced its intent that no exemption applied for other provisions of the motor vehicle laws. See also Wade v. Grooms, 37 N.C. App. 428, 430-31 (1978) (“Defendant points out that plaintiff’s testimony indicates a violation of G.S. 20-146, pertaining to driving on the right side of the highway, and that such violation is negligence Per se. However, the principle urged by defendant is not applicable to law enforcement officers, who are not to be deemed negligent merely for failure to observe the rules of the road while engaged in the pursuit of lawbreakers.”) Thus, the mere fact that a law enforcement officer violates a rule of the road does not establish negligence for purposes of a civil injury claim, nor does it establish culpability for purposes of a criminal prosecution.
Standard of Care. The speed limit exception in G.S. 20-145 does not “protect the driver of a [speeding law enforcement] vehicle from the consequence of a reckless disregard of the safety of others.” The state supreme court held in Young v. Woodall, 343 N.C. 459 (1996) that this provision of G.S. 20-145 renders an officer liable in a civil action only for speeding that was grossly negligent. Ordinary negligence does not suffice. The Collins court, in contrast, adopted an ordinary negligence standard for determining when an officer’s actions exceed the bounds of the common law exception from motor vehicle laws generally, noting that officers are required to exercise a “reasonable degree of care to avoid injury to other[s] who may be on the public roads and streets.” 6 N.C. App. at 509 (internal quotations omitted).
Criminal Prosecution. A law enforcement officer who violates the motor vehicle laws and who is not entitled to the aforementioned exemptions may be prosecuted for her conduct. The defendant-officer in such a case bears the burden of proving that the exception applies. See Flaherty, 55 N.C. App. at 22. A Highway Patrol spokesman told 20/20 that an investigation had been launched into the driving by its instructor. There is no word on whether the driving instructor wound up in district court alongside alleged citizen-speeders.