Sunday, June 23, 2024

NHCSO responds to complaints over hours-long wait at CB checkpoint

NHCSO held a DWI checkpoint on June 8, backing up vehicles for miles and hours in Carolina Beach. (Courtesy Pleasure Island News)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A Saturday night traffic checkpoint backed up vehicles for miles and hours in Carolina Beach; now, some drivers are demanding better foresight from law enforcement agencies in charge. 

READ MORE: Police budgets increasing across NHC, here’s what the money is going toward

The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, in partnership with the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Department, set up a roadblock in the outgoing lanes, just past Snow’s Cut Bridge. From 8:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., deputies issued citations for five DWIs and 88 other violations, all while causing hours-long delays for anyone trying to get off the island. 

NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer told Port City Daily Tuesday the sheriff’s office has set up a checkpoint at the location before, but this was the first time where traffic was congested more than normal. 

“Obviously, they didn’t let enough cars go through, but it’s a tough high-wire act,” Brewer said. “It’s one of those things you can’t predict.” 

One driver, Joel Lamb — a local musician who was performing at The Lazy Pirate Saturday night — said he arrived at 5:30 p.m. to set up for his show. He noticed traffic headed toward the bridge was heavy, but that wasn’t unusual for a summer weekend. By 8 p.m., he said the outbound cars were at a standstill — and remained that way by the time his set was over shortly before midnight. 

Lamb didn’t make it home until 1:30 a.m., with an alarm scheduled for 3:30 a.m. for a shift at Costco. 

“I have driven through many roadblocks in the area after performing music at night, and most of them are handled pretty efficiently — this was definitely an outlier,” Lamb wrote in a message to Port City Daily on Monday.

Many others shared similar wait times of two-plus hours on social media and internal emails sent to county officials obtained by PCD following the event. 

“Obviously, no consideration was given to the welfare of the people,” Wilmington resident Chuck Ohnmacht wrote to Sheriff Ed McMahon on Monday, July 11. “Think about older people and sick people and people with bladder and/or bowel control. Three hours in your car can be a really long time if you are in pain. How about families with kids and dogs after they have been at the beach all day. Not fun.” 

Multiple drivers reported seeing passengers evacuate their cars in search of a place to use the bathroom while they waited in the line. 

A Wilmington resident emailed McMahon on Sunday reporting his 74-year-old mother, stuck in traffic for hours in a separate car, would have run out of gas had it not been for the generosity of a couple in the car ahead of her. They offered her fuel from a can they carried with them.

Residents also directed their ire at the Carolina Beach Police Department, who was not involved in the checkpoint and posted as much on its Facebook page Saturday.

New Hanover County commissioner Dane Scalise was also brought into the fray; a response to a resident email indicated he spoke with NHCSO on Sunday.

“We must be vigilant to ensure that our roads and citizens are safe, but we must also be mindful of outcomes like this and the risk they also pose to the community,” Scalise penned.

According to Brewer, the deputies did follow protocol. Despite multiple resident accounts to the contrary, he said not every car was stopped, and there were multiple times where the deputies let cars through for 10 minute-slots to relieve traffic. 

Per North Carolina law, DWI checkpoints are legal — and not violations of the Fourth Amendment’s unlawful search and seizure protections — under certain parameters. The pattern of the screenings must be determined ahead of time and performed at random to avoid profiling — for instance, every five cars will be stopped.

The DWI checkpoint was set up just past Snow’s Cut Bridge on Saturday leaving Carolina Beach, which had many motorists stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours. (Courtesy Pleasure Island News)

The placement of the checkpoint should be clearly visible, a sign placed, with at least one car operating blue flashing lights. It also indicates law enforcement should avoid placing checkpoints in the same location or proximity. 

Brewer explained the placement of the checkpoint, on the only route off Pleasure Island, was chosen precisely for that reason. 

“They usually pick somewhere — and this is all done by a group of people who are in those units — but they usually pick somewhere that doesn’t have an opportunity for people to turn around,” he said. 

According to feedback from those stuck in the line, many noted the egregious inconvenience and stated it was a safety hazard for those trying to merge into the exit queue and for emergency personnel. 

If emergency vehicles needed to pass, Brewer clarified deputies would have escorted them through the roadblock, though that did not become necessary during this event. 

“A more efficient, effective, and legally appropriate method to catch inebriated drivers would be to send the same resources used for this checkpoint out into selectively targeted areas of the community, at an hour where more inebriated drivers are leaving the bars, to watch for erratic driving and detain those motorists without the massive inconvenience and civil rights quagmire created by your actions last evening,” a resident wrote to the sheriff. 

On Monday, McMahon responded with a message he sent to several other residents apologizing for the inconvenience. 

“I have met with my supervisory Staff who were involved with this checkpoint and I have voiced my displeasure and I can assure you this will not happen again,” McMahon wrote. 

Brewer noted while adjustments are needed for the future, detaining five drunk drivers ultimately made the checkpoint a success. 

“What if they killed someone that night?” Brewer said. “Was it worth it? Yes. We stopped somebody from getting hurt.”


Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at brenna@localdailymedia.com.

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