WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Driving while impaired charges against a state trooper were dropped on Friday, prompting questions from many of our viewers about whether this officer got special treatment.
The Wilmington Police Department told WECT that even though the dashboard lights in Paul Tafoya's 2016 Jeep were on, the ignition was off, and that is why they dropped the charges. He was stopped on July 21 at 3:42 am, sitting in the driver's seat of his vehicle near the intersection of Princess Street and North Front Street in Downtown Wilmington.
Tafoya has been with the NC Highway Patrol for 23 years. He was placed on paid administrative leave after his arrest. We are awaiting a response from the Highway Patrol about his duty status now that the criminal charges against him have been dropped.
Jimmy McGee, a Wilmington defense attorney who frequently handles DWI cases, spoke to WECT about the reasons the DWI charges may have been dropped.
"Police have to prove they reasonably detained him with lack of any criminal activity," McGee explained. "They also have to prove beyond reasonable doubt the car was in operation."
With keyless ignition systems, the dashboard lights and infotainment systems of newer model cars can turn on anytime a person with an electronic key gets inside the vehicle.
Traditionally, if your keys were in the ignition of your car, you could be charged with DWI. McGee says officers typically have to prove the engine was operating for the case to stand up in court. They could feel the hood of the car to see if it was warm because the engine had been running, and check to see if the headlights were on as evidence the car was operational.
A WPD news release about Tafoya's charges being dropped stated that "an in-depth investigation revealed that Tafoya's vehicle engine was in fact not running during the initial contact."
Police may have reviewed the officer's body cam video to determine if there was proof that the car had been running. McGee said the technology now exists with some newer vehicles that allow the car's computer to show when the engine was turned on.
McGee also said the Fourth Amendment gives people the right not to be encountered by police unless they are doing something wrong. He said police do have the "community caretaker" exception, which gives them the ability to check on something or someone that may be amiss. But McGee said that would be more reasonable if someone was sitting in the driver's seat of their car along the side of a highway, rather than in a downtown setting where there could be a number of reasonable explanations for a person to be sitting in their car other than driving.
It is not clear what prompted the WPD officer to stop Tafoya as he sat in his car that weekend.
We were unable to reach Tafoya for comment. We are not clear where he is stationed, but we know he is not assigned to the New Hanover/Brunswick County patrol district.
McGee recommends that if you are intoxicated and getting into your car to sleep, wait for a ride, or just to get out of the hot, cold, or rain, that you sit in the passenger seat to avoid any confusion that you may be driving and potential criminal charges.