Tuesday, May 24, 2022

After Wrightsville Beach cop resigns, DWI charges against elected official dismissed

North Topsail Beach Alderman Tom Leonard was arrested in November on charges of a DWI and possession of two concealed guns after drinking. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of North Topsail Beach)
North Topsail Beach Alderman Tom Leonard was arrested in November on charges of a DWI and possession of two concealed guns after drinking. (Port City Daily photo/Courtesy Town of North Topsail Beach)

WILMINGTON — A DWI and concealed gun case against North Topsail Beach Alderman Tom Leonard has been dismissed because the arresting officer resigned just weeks after the arrest and was unavailable to testify in court, according to officials.

Leonard was pulled over on South Lumina Avenue in Wrightsville Beach in the early morning hours of Tuesday, November 12, and arrested for driving under the influence and possession of two handguns after drinking. Upon an intoximeter test, his blood alcohol content level was recorded at .11% — .03% over the legal driving limit in North Carolina.

RELATED: No plans to resign for North Topsail Beach alderman arrested on DWI, concealed weapon charges

Despite this, charges against Leonard were dropped last month because Wrightsville Beach Police Department Officer John Benton, the arresting officer, had resigned.

Because Benton was not present at the first court hearing, the case was continued to January 14. Eventually, the District Attorney’s office chose to withdraw for the case — for now.

“[Benton] was also not present at the January 14 court date, so we made the strategic decision to voluntarily dismiss the case,” Samantha Dooies, spokesperson for District Attorney Ben David’s office, said. “That gives us a year to refile charges with no double jeopardy attaching.”

When first asked for comment on Tuesday, Chief House said there were likely multiple officers during the arrest who could also testify in Benton’s place, including an officer who ran the intoximeter.

“I couldn’t tell you why they did what they did,” House said when asked why the DA’s office dismissed the case. “I find it hard to believe that no one else was involved and could testify.”

However, in an email sent Tuesday afternoon, House clarified that an officer-in-training had assisted Officer Benton with a search of Leonard’s vehicle after the arrest. Based on the report narrative of the incident, it appeared that neither the officer-in-training nor another officer who performed the intoxication analysis were on-scene at the time of the arrest.

“This would mean that Officer Benton was the only person that could have testified to the probable cause involved in this initial arrest,” House said.

House said he could not explain why Benton resigned a month after the arrest — and only a year after he was hired as an officer the previous December — citing state personnel privacy laws.

In early January Leonard issued a statement to Port City Daily saying that although he regrets any embarrassment he may have caused the town or his family, he would plead not guilty in the case and had retained counsel to fight the charges.

Attorney Scott Girdwood of Wilmington represented Leonard in the case.


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