Civilian crash investigators unlikely to start writing tickets any time soon

Rep. Carson Smith, R-Pender, asks a question in committee. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)
  • A state House judiciary committee has approved new civilian traffic crash investigators for Greenville.
  • The same committee rejected a request from Wilmington to expand the authority of its civilian investigators. They would have been able to start writing citations.

Greenville might soon join Wilmington and Fayetteville as the only N.C. cities employing civilian traffic crash investigators. But a state House committee has backed off a proposal to let Wilmington’s investigators start writing tickets.

The judiciary committee approved House Bill 1011 Wednesday, but only after removing the portion of the bill applying to Wilmington.

As the bill stands now, Greenville would be allowed to hire nonpolice crash investigators. The city could use them for vehicle crashes involving only property damage.

The original bill also would have expanded the authority of Wilmington’s existing traffic crash investigators. They would have been able to write citations.

Rep. Carson Smith, R-Pender, offered an amendment to remove the portion of the bill involving Wilmington.

“There is some concern, I think, … from me and maybe a couple other members to let one police department that came several years ago and asked if they could have civilian traffic investigators … Back then, ‘Oh, no, we’re not writing tickets or anything,’ but now would be kind of the first step. ‘Oh, well, we need them to write infractions,’” said Smith, a former sheriff.

“For us to do this, for it to be the first place in the state, if we haven’t really talked through it and maybe vetted giving civilians the authority to issue citations, I think we just might need to talk through it a little bit more,” Smith added. He suggested referring the idea to a legislative oversight committee.

Ted Davis in committee
Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, presents a bill in committee. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

Rep. Ted Davis, R-New Hanover, sought the additional authority for Wilmington’s investigators. Civilian investigators would be limited to writing citations in cases involving no alcohol and no personal injuries, he said.

Davis cited a letter from Wilmington Police Chief Donny Williams, who requested the change. “Crash investigators cannot issue citations, so we have to call an officer to come out to assist with issues of citations during this stage of each investigation,” Davis said, reading Williams’ words. “This happens multiple times each day. This is not the most efficient use of our sworn officer resources.”

Other committee members echoed Smith’s concerns.

Sarah Stevens in committee
Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry, presents a bill in committee. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

“This is a pretty significant leap for a program that’s sort of been experimental anyway,” said Rep. Sarah Stevens, R-Surry. ”We are seeing a program that may be very, very good expanding. … We haven’t looked at the overall impact of that.”

One committee member noted concerns about distinguishing different types of crashes.

Reece Pyrtle in committee
Rep. Reece Pyrtle, R-Rockingham, asks a question in committee. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

“Oftentimes, these property damage accidents will evolve an hour or two later into a personal injury accident,” said Rep. Reece Pyrtle, R-Rockingham. “Then you’ve created a nightmare as far as the logistics of keeping up with the paperwork.”

Marcia Morey in committee
Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, asks a question in committee. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

Rep. Marcia Morey, D-Durham, has filed a bill to add civilian crash investigators to her city. That bill does not seek citation-writing powers for civilian investigators.

“I don’t think our law would allow any civilian unsworn officer to issue any type of citation whatsoever,” Morey said. ”So we would have to change that entirely.”

Once committee members adopted Smith’s amendment, no one objected to Greenville’s request.

Allen McNeill in committee
Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph, listens to committee debate. (Image from N.C. General Assembly YouTube channel)

“I understand that in these cities an officer’s valuable time is often — I won’t say wasted — but taken with traveling from one wreck to the other,” said Rep. Allen McNeill, R-Randolph. “Civilian traffic investigators have a very important part in cities and investigation of crashes in the future.”

Rep. Billy Richardson, D-Cumberland, the committee’s chairman, offered final comments before a vote. “Fayetteville did this, and I went along with it kicking and screaming,” he said. “I will have to say they’ve done a very good job with it. … My reservations were wrong.”

H.B. 1011 was scheduled to head to the Rules Committee before heading to the House floor.