Appeals Court grants stay in case involving trooper who found roadside drugs

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  • The North Carolina Court of Appeals has issued a stay favoring the state agency in charge of law enforcement certification in its legal dispute with a fired state trooper.
  • In a separate case, the Appeals Court issued a June 2023 ruling favoring Joe Locklear in his efforts to regain his job with the State Highway Patrol.
  • The Highway Patrol fired Locklear because of his actions involving drugs he found on the side of a highway in 2020.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals has issued a stay in a case pitting a fired state trooper against the agency responsible for law enforcement certification in North Carolina. The case stems from the trooper’s actions when he discovered a bag of drugs on the side of a highway in 2020.

In a separate case, the Appeals Court issued an unpublished June 2023 decision favoring Joe Locklear in his effort to get his trooper’s job back with the State Highway Patrol.

Locklear is also fighting the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission’s effort to suspend his law enforcement certification. The commission targeted Locklear for suspension in June 2022 and issued a final decision against him in December 2023. A Superior Court judge ruled in Locklear’s favor on May 28.

Now, an unnamed three-judge Appeals Court panel has agreed unanimously to block the trial judge’s ruling on a temporary basis. The stay will remain in place while the Appeals Court considers a more permanent order called a writ of supersedeas.

The commission, acting as the respondent in the case, argued in court filings that the stay and writ “would enable Respondent to fulfill its role in seeing that those who hold law enforcement certifications meet the standards Respondent is tasked by the General Assembly to promulgate and enforce.”

The commission accused Locklear of “very serious breaches of the public trust in ways that exposed the public to significant harm.”

Without an Appeals Court order blocking the trial court’s decision, “Respondent would be compelled to ignore Petitioner’s bad acts and proceed with certification for any law enforcement agency application Petitioner might submit as if the Petitioner had never acted contrary to his duty.”

Locklear, a master trooper, joined the Highway Patrol in 2006. He lost his job because of an incident in August 2020.

While patrolling NC 72, Locklear noticed a driver wearing no seatbelt, with a passenger apparently drinking a beer, according to court filings in his legal battle with the North Carolina Department of Public Safety. Pulling up alongside the car, Locklear gave the driver a verbal warning and allowed him to drive away.

Turning the patrol car around, Locklear noticed a bag on the side of the road. He retrieved the bag, which contained “a felony amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, cash, jewelry, and other miscellaneous items.” Locklear left the scene with the bag but later returned and threw the bag into the woods.

That evening, the driver called in a “citizen complaint” about his interaction with Locklear. Questioned by a sergeant, Locklear failed to tell the truth about the incident. He later admitted to “misleading” the sergeant.

Locklear’s conduct violated Highway Patrol policies regarding unbecoming conduct, truthfulness, neglect of duty, and unacceptable personal conduct, according to DPS court filings.

The Patrol dismissed Locklear in October 2020, with a final decision confirming his firing in February 2021.

Administrative Law Judge Michael Byrne ruled that Locklear’s offenses did not result in “just cause” for him to be fired. Byrne noted Locklear’s positive employment record dating back to 2006. The judge ruled that Locklear should be reinstated, demoted from master trooper to trooper, and forced to face a five-day suspension without pay.

“This is no light discipline,” Byrne wrote. “It reflects the review of the Tribunal, and our appellate courts, that Truthfulness, Unbecoming Conduct, and Neglect of Duty are serious issues. However, it reflects consideration and balancing of the equities. … It includes consideration of [the] requirement of equity and fairness ‘to the employee.’”

DPS appealed Byrne’s ruling. The case attracted attention from the group Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina, which filed a brief in the case. The group urged Appeals Court judges to uphold Byrne’s decision.

“The issues before this Court are vitally important for a significant portion of the membership of the PFFPNC, as well as for other public employees of municipalities of North Carolina,” according to the motion. “While those employees are not covered by the State Personnel Act as the Petitioner in this case is, there are a number of cities that have Civil Service Acts that do provide those city’s employees with just cause protections. Cities with such acts include at least Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Asheville, and Statesville.”

“This Court’s decision regarding the standards that apply to determine whether just cause exists for the discipline meted out to employees with just cause protections will have impact on those municipal employees,” the group argued. “In particular, the decision of the Court in this case could be of great significance to municipal employees protected by Civil Service Acts exercising their rights of appeal to our appellate courts.”

Appeals Court Judges Julee Flood, Hunter Murphy, and Fred Gore affirmed Byrne’s decision favoring Locklear against the Department of Public Safety. The unpublished June 2023 opinion has limited value as a precedent.