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Can a North Carolina firefighter stop a suspected drunk driver?

Everyone knows that the sight of flashing blue lights means "pull over." But what if those blue lights are attached not to a police car, but to a fire truck? Does a fire truck have a right to pull over a suspected driver?

That's the question currently being considered in the North Carolina court system, and it could have serious implications for one woman who has been accused of drunk driving.

In May 2011, a fireman with the Chapel Hill Fire Department was driving a fire truck to a call when he noticed a Mercedes stopped halfway in an intersection with its lights off. Later, he was told the engine would not be required at the scene of the fire. On his way back to the station, he saw the Mercedes again. This time, he noted that it was driving unusually slowing and having difficulty maintaining its lane.

The fireman called police multiple times, but when he saw the Mercedes nearly cause a collision, he took action. He activated the fire truck's lights and pulled the car over.

The fireman suggested to the driver of the Mercedes that she should have one of her friends come and pick her up. He also offered to have one of his men park her car for her. The woman agreed, but then drove away.

Police later stopped the woman and charged her with DWI. During the trial, however, the woman claimed that she had been the victim of an unlawful traffic stop, as the fire truck did not have the legal right to pull her over.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals was unable to answer the tricky legal question. Some judges said the fireman was acting within his rights as a concerned citizen. Others said he used the authority given to him by the state to affect the traffic stop, and thus the stop was illegitimate.

As this case illustrates, our constitutional rights are an extremely important consideration in our justice system. The right to protection from search and seizure, for example, protects us from unlawful traffic stops.

In this case, the fire truck question has yet to be answered. The Court of Appeals sent the case back down to the lower court, requesting that the judge there make further inquiries into the night's events.


Source: 
The Herald-Sun, "Did firefighter have the right to stop a suspected drunk driver?" Beth Velliquette, Sep. 03, 2013

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