Drunk drivers pulled over at a police traffic stop are a common occurrence. Drunk drivers pulled over and arrested by private citizens are rare, but do still happen and are constitutional. A drunk driver pulled over by a fire truck makes for a constitutional case of first impression for North Carolina courts.
In a highly unusual incident in May 2011, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill professor of history, Dorothy Hoogland Verkerk, was pulled over by a fire truck driven by Fire Lieutenant Gordon Shatley. According to Shatley, Verkerk was driving well below the speed limit, was swerving, had her hazard lights on and headlights off, and had a window open despite pouring rain. Shatley claims that he turned on the siren and fire truck lights to prevent other drivers from passing Verkerk’s vehicle. Shatley further claims that Verkerk’s car then struck a curb and Verkerk pulled over. Shatley ran over to Verkerk’s vehicle and asked her to park and to have someone pick her up. At this point, Verkerk sped away and Shatley called the police. Verkerk was pulled over by the police and arrested on suspicion of drunk driving.
Verkerk was convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail, probation and community service. Verkerk has appealed her conviction on the ground that Shatley performed an unconstitutional traffic stop under the color of a government official, despite the fact that Shatley is not trained and not authorized to perform traffic stops. The appeals court partially agreed with Verkerk and remanded the case to the lower court to consider whether the initial actions by Shatley violated the Fourth Amendment prohibition on illegal searches and seizures – an issue that the lower court had not considered.
If the lower court finds that Shatley’s actions violated the Fourth Amendment, then the subsequent police stop and arrest were also unconstitutional under the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree doctrine and Verkerk’s conviction would likely be vacated.
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