Troopers Stir Up Storm

Jenny Scarborough

A recent visit by Highway Patrol has the whole island talking.

Road blocks, license checks and regular patrols of Ocracoke's state roads by State Troopers on May 1 -3,  in a village of 1000 people meant you, or someone you know, was stopped.

It was close to impossible to leave your home, hotel or rental cottage without seeing a blue light. The phrase "police state" and the word "harassment" were both used to describe the presence of troopers doing their jobs in the way they were trained to do them.

"I didn't feel safer. I felt attacked. I was afraid to leave my house," said resident Heather Johnson, despite the fact that her car isn't currently operational and she bikes or walks everywhere.

Many island business owners expressed concern that aggressive law enforcement has a negative effect on a tourist economy.

That is not the goal of Highway Patrol visits, said First Sergeant Brandon Craft, who leads District IV of Troop A, which is responsible for patrolling the state highways in Hyde County.

"My number one goal for that island is DWI arrests. That is the most dangerous thing drivers do on the road. When I was there on Sunday it was very slow, but there were still 75 to 100 pedestrians, and a quarter of those were children," said Craft.

He personally visited the island the day after the two patrol cars driven by Sergeant Beau Daniel and Trooper Christopher Moore were vandalized in the early morning hours of Saturday, near the end of their stay on Ocracoke. A cinder block was thrown through the rear window of one; the other had paint poured on it.

"The cars are fixed and ready to roll. I'm not focused on that," said Craft. Ocracoke Sheriff's Department is investigating the vandalism.

"I went to the island personally and alone, so I could say that 'I sent people here. If you have concerns, I'll be happy to talk to you.' I didn't send ten troopers to lock down the island. That's not fair to the good, law abiding citizens of Ocracoke."

The view from the Cafe Atlantic on Friday, May 3.
The view from the Cafe Atlantic on Friday, May 3.

Of 11 DWI arrests made in District IV last week, 6 of those were on Ocracoke. That is "not a good thing considering that Ocracoke is much smaller" and less populous than the rest of the district, pointed out Craft.

The decision to send troopers during a time that coincided with the annual Ocracoke Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament, "was mine. That was all me," said Craft. Neither Hyde Sheriff's Department nor Hyde Commissioners requested the visit.

"I picked that time because as a First Sergeant I have a responsibility to be aware of events that cause more traffic to be in the area. It's just like July 4th in Belhaven. When there is a huge influx of people, I assign more troopers."

"I knew there would be an influx of traffic, and I sent a couple of troopers to work it. It was clearly right. We arrested five DWIs." He added the sixth DWI to Ocracoke's score sheet when he made a routine seat belt stop during his trip to the island on Sunday.

The law abiding and the mostly law abiding had plenty to say about the Highway Patrol visit.

"Everyone at the bar was talking about it," said Jessica Summerton, a long time visitor from Kill Devil Hills. The Summertons were celebrating their anniversary, without their children. They got their drink on at Howard's Pub, and elected to not ride bikes back to their hotel, fearful of being stopped because they didn't have lights. Bartender Aaron Gallaher offered them a ride instead.

"We were nervous, even on bikes," said Summerton. "I don't want to not be able to drive my kids around because I rode a bike drunk on vacation."

Enforcement tactics that make visitors anxious "are not fair to this place," she said.

Troopers wrote no citations for drunk biking, which is an infraction that carries the same penalties as DWI. The NC General Assembly changed that law in 2006, and horses are the only means of transportation one can legally 'operate' while intoxicated in NC. You can, however, receive a DWI on a donkey, mule, or other pack animal. That's rational. Or is it?

Residents and visitors were stopped by troopers for riding bikes at night without a light. At least one, a local high school student, was breathalyzed after officers picked up the scent of his aftershave. He had not been drinking alcohol that night.

Both local officers and troopers encourage bicyclists to comply with the laws requiring a light, for their own safety. Highway Patrol not only protects you from the poor decisions of others, but sometimes from your own, said Craft.

"Everyone at our morning exercise class was talking about it," said Roger Garrish of the Sand Dollar Motel. All of his guests were talking about the troopers, too. Garrish recalls "less than  a handful" of traffic accidents and few fatalities during his 11 years on the Ocracoke Rescue Squad.

Many at the annual Ocracoke Island Fishing Tournament were talking about it, as were people in gift shops and restaurants. 

Jerry Sheppard, Warren Kennedy and their wives drive down from Smithfield, Virginia, and have volunteered as OISFT judges for over a decade. They were surprised by the level of enforcement.

"Look at the clientele that come down. It ain't spring break," quipped Sheppard, who always looks forward to this trip. The average age of an OISFT team is, shall we say, mature.

Variety Store owners Tommy and Kathy Hutcherson said a lot of their customers had opinions, and were questioning whether they would return to the island for their next vacation.

Even the Raleigh News and Observer wrote about the troopers and referenced, though failed to link to, Ocracoke Current. Pull it together, N&O!

No one interviewed or even overheard thought smashing up and throwing paint on patrol cars was a good idea. Most thought it was a supremely bad idea. Many said they were, however, unsurprised by the vandalism, given the high levels of frustration people were feeling.

The culprit is still being sought, and Ocracokers hope the case is solved, not least to satisfy the curiosity of whether a local or a visitor was the perpetrator. Sundae and I would like to officially lay to rest the notion floated by Ocracoke Coffee Co. barista Luke Harrington that she or I did it so we'd have something to write about.

Blue lights flashed for violations that seemed irrelevant, said Al Scarborough, who was pulled for being in his golf cart in the down base parking lot. Golf Carts can not be on federal land. Or can they?

Is that an actual law Congress took time to draft and pass?

Trooper Moore said that law justified the stop. Retired Ocracoke NPS District Head Ranger Kenny Ballance said it was a law, but he'd never seen any reason to discourage golf carts from using the parking lot. NPS Enforcement Officer Joshua Vann said a Hyde County ordinance permits golf carts in the village.

Dad (aka Al Scarborough, for off island readers) called and interrupted my afternoon nap on Friday, hoping to talk to a reporter. I ignored two of his three calls. Nap time is sacred.

"There is no doubt about it. It's out and out harassment," he told me. My father is retired, and has some time on his hands.

"I followed and watched them stop five people within a half hour. All of them went by me doing nothing wrong, with their seat belts on. Then they just pulled out and stopped them," said Scarborough, who was astonished by the reasons some people were given for being pulled, including a slightly askew inspection sticker.

That woman then had the prescription pills she'd just picked up from the Health Center checked before being allowed to continue her day.

A lot of people confessed to giving up and just staying home. About 100 fewer people than usual attended the community wide barbeque dinner that OISFT hosts, and Howard's Pub employees said they were disappointed with the turn out at the post-party.

Neither Craft nor his patrolmen see any need to apologize for any of their stops. "We stop for seat belts. We'll stop for any violation that we can to determine if [drivers] have been drinking," said Craft. "I don't understand how people can not support that."

Of the 59 charges issued by Trooper Moore and Sergeant Daniel, 32 were for seat belt violations. Wearing a seat belt "should be in your mind every day when you drive," said Craft. The other citations written were for improper child restraints, expired registration and licenses, and speeding. 18 written warnings were also issued, as well as number of verbal warnings.

Adrienne Wolf serves up the best cocktails at the Back Porch, and was stopped after making a left turn onto Bank Road, when officers observed the rear wheels of her vehicle cross the double yellow line.

Adrienne freely admitted she had been drinking wine before driving to pick up take out food from Gaffer's. She also refused a breathalyzer.

"I counted one Mississippi to twenty Mississippi. I walked the line. I touched my nose, and followed his finger back and forth. I guess I passed," said Ms. Wolf, who was fewer than 200 yards from her home. The experience was mostly embarrassing, she said.

"Everyone who gets pulled feels targeted and embarrassed," she said. "I ran an errand and came home fine. They're just doing their jobs. I get that. I'm glad I got a warning and not a DWI. I imagine there are people that earned them."

When the officer questioned a sweet smell coming from her vehicle, Adrienne assured him it was "probably the chicken wings," which were not as hot as she wanted them to be when she sat down to eat.

Craft recognizes that because the village is small, troopers are highly visible when they visit. Craft wants to "make it not a big deal for troopers to be on the island. We're going to have to come more and be seen more."

"It's a geographical challenge to get over there. The schedules that we work make it difficult to get over there for a day trip," he said.

Troopers normally work 8 hour shifts. To patrol Ocracoke requires a six hour round trip, either through Dare County, which District IV does not normally patrol, or via the Swan Quarter ferry. Day trips mean troopers are spending a great deal of their shift in transit, rather than on patrol.

Over night stays have their own challenges. Budget requests must be approved for accommodation and meals. "I'm going to have to sit back, look at it, and figure it out," said Craft, who has led District IV for the past year and a half.

Why not send one deserving officer for a dip in the ocean and two nice long boat rides? He or she could work one afternoon and evening, spend the night at one of Ocracoke's fine motels, and catch the sunrise on the way home. Both the 4 local and 3 federal officers who work on Ocracoke would provide back up.

Patrolling Ocracoke differs from patrolling highways. Bikes, pedestrians, golf carts, motor vehicles and delivery trucks share small, narrow roads.

"There is no question that we need to set the example. We don't need to be running 50 miles per hour in the village. We need to take into account the type of violation we're trying to get to," said Craft.

"I try to have an understanding of the life that goes on on Ocracoke," said Craft, who has both patrolled here and vacationed here since 1995. Many of his colleagues also "love the island" and enjoy vacations here. Some residents even call First Sergeant Craft by his first name.

"It's not that we want to come pick on people. We want people to remember there are laws they have to follow, even on Ocracoke," said Craft.

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