Friday, August 19, 2022

Engine off, keys in pocket: WPD arrested State Trooper despite evidence he was innocent

According to documents from the office of the District Attorney, the Wilmington Police Department discovered several key pieces of evidence exonerating the State Trooper they arrested for a DWI.

According to documents from the District Attorney's office, there were several key pieces of evidence indicating that State Trooper Dennis Tafoya's vehicle was not running - in fact that the keys were never in the ignition - before Wilmington police officers arrested him. (Port City Daily photo | File)
According to documents from the District Attorney’s office, there were several key pieces of evidence indicating that State Trooper Dennis Tafoya’s vehicle was not running – in fact that the keys were never in the ignition – before Wilmington police officers arrested him. (Port City Daily photo | File)

Update Friday 1:30 p.m.: Chief of Police Ralph Evangelous offered a statement on the situation which is included at the end of this story. 

WILMINGTON — After the arrest and subsequent dismissal of charges against a State Trooper by the Wilmington Police Department, there are still questions surrounding the incident. Now, recently acquired documents offer some insight into the arrest and subsequent dismissal of all charges against Dennis Tafoya.

According to a police report written by officer Scott Bremley of the Wilmington Police Department, “Driver seen asleep in his Jeep on side of roadway(,) vomit located on door and side step, vehicle running, odor of alcoholic beverage, red glossy eyes, requested pre-arrest test.”

At least two other law enforcement officers were on the scene as well including a New Hanover County Sheriff’s deputy and another WPD officer.

However, all was not as it seemed.

According to documents pertaining to the dismissal of the charges, there was no evidence Tafoya had actually broken the law. Through the use of body-cam footage, as well as CCTV footage from across the street, it has since been shown that Tafoya never turned his vehicle on — in fact, the keys were never in the car’s ignition while the police were on scene.

According to the dismissal report from Assistant District Attorney Doug Carriker, “It turns out that after reviewing the video recorded by the officers at the time of their encountering the defendant in his parked Jeep, the defendant’s engine was not running and there is no further evidence that the engine had been running or that the vehicle had been in motion during the time the defendant was impaired and behind the wheel.

“In fact, further footage retrieved from a closed-circuit surveillance camera across the street shows that the vehicle in question had not moved at any point during the approximately five hours leading up to the time of the encounter between the officers and the defendant,” the statement continued.

“In retrospect, from the body-cam footage from when the defendant got out of the car, it seems that the keys were in the defendant pocket the entire time he was interacting with the officers, and that there was no time while the officers are on scene when the keys are in the ignition.” Doug carriker

How did this happen?

According to the dismissal report, around 3:30 a.m. officers drove past Tafoya’s vehicle, which was in a parking spot on Princess Street. The driver appeared to be passed out in the drivers seat with the drivers door cracked open.

Officers pulled up next to Tafoya’s Jeep and left their own engine running.

“When the officers got out and approached the defendant, they saw what they took to be two lights on the defendant’s vehicle’s dashboard that would indicate the defendant’s vehicle was on … one officer sought to clarify whether the defendant’s vehicle was on by asking the defendant whether the defendant’s vehicle was on; the defendant seemed to understand the question and answered, ‘yes,’ according to the report.

Despite a verbal confirmation from Tafoya that the vehicle was running, it was not.

When one of the officers went to move the defendant’s car several things were clear.

“First, the keys were not in the ignition or anywhere in the defendant’s vehicle when the officer went to move it. The officer had to go back to the defendant and the defendant’s keys had to be dug out of his pants pocket. In retrospect, from the body-cam footage from when the defendant got out of the car, it seems that the keys were in the defendant’s pocket the entire time he was interacting with the officers, and that there was no time while the officers are on scene when the keys are in the ignition,” Carriker wrote.

According to the dismissal report, when officers retreived the keys and went to move Tafoya’s vehicle, there was more evidence it had not been running. Before officers moved the Jeep, the dash lights – initially noted as indicators the engine was running – were on, even though the Jeep was off and the keys were not yet in the ignition. This indicated the officers’ initial assessment was inaccurate.

Further, when one of the officers did start the Jeep, several lights and a display screen – which had previously been dark – illuminated and remained on while the vehicle was running. This further indicated Tafoya’s engine had not been on when officers initially spotted him.

Also, the vehicle had been placed in first gear without the parking brake engaged and appeared to have been in that position the entire time police were interacting with Tafoya. Vehicles with manual transmissions will not turn on while in gear unless the clutch is depressed, and if they are turned on while in gear without moving they stall.

Finally, Carriker confirms no crime was committed during the course of the incident.

“It is not a crime–to be intoxicated and seated in the driver’s seat of a parked vehicle in a public vehicular area (like a parking spot) unless the engine is running…” he said.

Wilmington Police Spokeswoman Linda Thompson could not comment on the investigation, but did say that once the mistake was recognized WPD took corrective actions. There was also no comment made on why police officers proceeded with the arrest once they realized the keys were in Tafoya’s pocket.

Thompson did not directly respond when asked if this incident cast doubt on other DWI arrests made by the officers involved.

It is not completely clear why the Wilmington Police Department reviewed Tafoya’s case and began the investigation that discovered the exculpatory evidence detailed in the dismissal from the District Attorney’s office. Thompson did say the investigation was prompted by law enforcement, including but not limited to WPD.

Chief of Police Ralph Evangelous offered a statement on the arrest Friday afternoon.

“This particular arrest involved in-depth investigations from multiple agencies due to the personnel involved. While the responding officers had probable cause to arrest the defendant based on circumstances and information available to them at the time of the incident, additional information was revealed at a later date and reviewed by the District Attorney’s office. Due to this new information, the District Attorney’s office determined that this case could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, Evangelous said.

“It is the role of law enforcement officers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges to ensure that a defendant is treated fairly during the course of a criminal case. We believe that our criminal justice system has functioned properly in this matter,” he concluded.

Dismissal of 18CR55792 by Michael James on Scribd


Send comments and tips to Michael.p@localvoicemedia.com

Related Articles