Body-cam footage key to getting trooper's DWI charge dismissed

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Court documents provide new details about why a DWI charge was dismissed against a trooper with the N.C. State Highway Patrol.

Dennis Paul Tafoya was arrested on July 21 around 3:30 a.m. after Wilmington police officers spotted him passed out in the driver's seat of his car parked on Princess Street near the courthouse.

Tafoya was initially charged with DWI. However, that charge was dropped days later after WPD officials said "an in-depth investigation revealed that Tafoya's vehicle was in fact not running during the initial contact."

In a news release announcing the decision, WPD officials said "the law defines 'Driver' or 'Operator' as a person in actual physical control of a vehicle which is in motion or which has the engine running. The terms 'operator' and 'driver' and their cognates are synonymous."

According to documents attached to the dismissal order, body-cam footage of the encounter was instrumental in getting the charge dropped.

The document states officers drove past Tafoya's vehicle and noticed "the driver's door cracked open a foot or so." As officers approached the vehicle, they saw what appeared to be two dashboard lights illuminated, which would indicate the vehicle was on.

The officers ordered Tafoya out of the vehicle and asked him if his vehicle was on, to which Tafoya replied "yes."

"The officers didn't think anything further about the vehicle being on" and the "focus shifted to ascertaining the extent of (Tafoya's) apparent intoxication," the document stated.

At some point during the investigation, one of the officers attempted to move the vehicle but body-cam footage revealed the keys were not in the ignition or anywhere in the vehicle.

"The officer had to go back to the defendant and the defendant's keys had to be dug out of his pants pocket," according to the document. A review of the body-cam footage confirmed Tafoya had the keys in his pocket the entire time and at no point were the keys in the vehicle's ignition.

The document also stated the two dashboard lights that were on as the officers approached were, in fact, illuminated even without the keys in the ignition and without the engine running.

When the officer started the vehicle, "several lights and a display screen all came on and stayed on while the motor was running, which would again seem to show that the vehicle had not been on earlier when the officers first encountered the defendant."

A final detail the document noted was that the vehicle remained in first gear without the parking brake on.

"In retrospect, from body-cam footage from when the defendant was first seated in the car, it appears that the vehicle had been in first gear all along, which would further confirm that the vehicle had not been on earlier," according to the document.

The document continued, "It does not satisfy the elements of a crime — 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 lot) unless the engine is running."

Tafoya is a 23-year veteran with the State Highway Patrol and remains on paid administrative leave, according to Sgt. Christopher Knox.

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