Police group suing Fayetteville over consent search freeze
Posted February 22, 2012
Fayetteville, N.C. — A police group that has been outspoken in its opposition to a four-month moratorium on police consent searches in Fayetteville filed a lawsuit against the city in Superior Court Wednesday afternoon.
The Southern States Police Benevolent Association, along with six current and retired Fayetteville police officers, is seeking an injunction to resume the searches, one day after the state Attorney General's Office sided with law enforcement in an informal advisory letter about the issue.
"The City of Fayetteville has waged an unlawful and dangerous attack on the men and women who serve this community," John Midgette, spokesman for the PBA's local chapter, said in a press conference Wednesday.
He added that he reached out repeatedly to Mayor Tony Chavonne and City Council before going forward with the lawsuit, but those efforts were rebuffed.
Fayetteville City Council voted 8-2 last month to put consent searches on hold for 120 days while a consultant investigates claims that the practice disproportionately targets black drivers.
Council members met with the city attorney late Wednesday afternoon to discuss the lawsuit and voted to keep the moratorium in place.
Consent searches, which allow police officers to ask a driver's permission to search a vehicle without establishing probable cause, are legal under North Carolina law. Therefore, Special Deputy Attorney General John J. Aldridge wrote in a letter to Police Chief Tom Bergamine Tuesday, the city had no right to enact an ordinance against them.
"A municipal corporation's regulations, bylaws and ordinances must be in harmony with the general laws of the State," the letter states. "In the case of a conflict between the two, the local regulation must yield to state law."
Because the opinions handed down by the Attorney General's Office were only advisory letters – not directives or court orders – the city is not yet required to repeal its moratorium.
"I don't think it changes the status of where the city is," said Mayor Pro Tem Jim Arp, who proposed the moratorium.
He said Wednesday that the University of North Carolina School of Government agrees that the city has the authority to put a temporary freeze on law enforcement practices.
"Which position is right? You would have to ask a judge that. We think we're in good standing," Arp said. "If we're found not in good standing, we are law-abiding citizens, and we're going to do the right thing."