May 17, 2013

Ocracoke still reeling two weeks
after visit from state troopers


Two weeks after state troopers were on Ocracoke during the Ocracoke Island Invitational Surf Fishing Tournament and passed out 59 tickets and 18 warnings, rumors are still circulating about the events of that weekend.

Uniformly, islanders do not condone the vandalism of the two troopers’ cars early Saturday morning of that weekend and several have suggested that the sooner folks stop talking about the whole thing and try to heal the divide, the better.

Nor do islanders condone driving while impaired from whatever substance, but many were startled about having been stopped and questioned for seemingly minor -- though still unlawful -- infractions.  More than a few islanders were stopped twice for various infractions.

“I don’t have a problem with the state troopers ticketing anyone who deserves a ticket, however, some of the motorists who were stopped felt more victimized than protected,” observed Leslie Monticone, whose comment was echoed by many.
“Overzealous” is the term that has been heard frequently these last two weeks.

Nevertheless, First Sergeant Brandon Craft of Troop A, District 4 in Washington (Beaufort County), in a previous interview, said that often a small infraction, such as a seat belt violation, leads to a drunk-driving arrest.

“We get paid to be nosy,” he said.  “As uncomfortable as it is, that’s what we get paid to do. I will do everything I can to arrest drunk drivers.”

Ocracoke Island has historically had visits from the troopers on Memorial Day, July 4, and Labor Day weekends.

Islanders weren’t sure about whether the state police had visited before on the weekend of the annual surf-fishing tournament the first weekend in May, which is the first big tourist weekend of the season. It includes 70 teams of six fishermen who pay hundreds of dollars each to participate, as well as spending for lodging and food. Proceeds from the tournament are donated to several nonprofits on the island.

“Half of my tables that weekend had gotten pulled over,” observed an island server who declined to be identified.

One of the tournament board members, Patty Plyler, is still upset about what she perceived as the troopers looking for anything to pull people over.

“It ruined the fishing tournament, and I’m just furious about it,” she said recently. “It wasn’t even about the alcohol. All the people that week were feeling harassed and stressed and that’s no way to spend a vacation.”

Manager of the Ocracoke Seafood Company, Plyler said fishing teams came into her shop to buy fish to cook at home because they didn’t want to go out and possibly get pulled over.

“A lot of restaurants lost out that weekend,” she said.

Yes, they could have walked, she said, but another wrench thrown into the weekend was the high winds that hampered the island during the tournament, prompting people not to want to walk.

Mike Stockwell, whose Morning Star Stables is in its eighth season of offering beach rides via horses, had a ringside seat along Highway 12 for all the police action.

“They seemed to be really going for people,” he said, noting that the troopers parked in bushes nearby. “That weekend could have been in any U.S. city,” he said adding that several of his customers told him they would not come back.

“There are bad vibes on the island,” Mike continued. “Ever since Irene, business is off.”

The restaurants felt it.

“Usually we have a decent crowd during the fishing tournament,” said Scott McNally, owner of Gaffer’s Sports Pub. “But we had a definite decrease in business. There were definitely a lot of people saying they weren’t coming out.”

Ann Warner, owner of Howard’s Pub, likened the empty parking lots to that of a hurricane evacuation in what should have been a busy time.
“It had an impact on my employees, sales people, food and beverage vendors,” she said about the troopers’ visit. “It impacted revenues to the state and county. It was an economic blow.”

Mostly, it was just one more thing—along with fighting ferry tolls, compromised ferry service from Hatteras, more trouble with overwash on Highway 12, and fighting the gamefish bill—that Ocracokers have been stressed about since 2011.

Ocracokers do not feel they are above the law, but neither is Ocracoke a hotbed of crime, a number of islanders have said.

“We’re not perfect, but what the troopers did caused problems,” said islander Karen Burgan. “The purpose of law enforcement is not to cause problems where they don’t exist. Is crime on Ocracoke really a priority for North Carolina?”

Captain John Nyberg, head of District 4, which includes Ocracoke, said they are not picking on Ocracoke.

“If we were picking on them we’d be there every weekend,” he said. “Folks need to understand that we will be out there at times.”

Despite the sometime congested village streets—pedestrians, golf carts, bicyclists, trucks, RVs and cars—there have not been many serious accidents on the island.

Hyde County Sheriff David Mason said there have been two serious mishaps with golf carts, resulting in deaths, since golf carts began making a big presence on the island a few years ago, and “several years ago” a man on the island was killed in an accident that involved alcohol.

“The main thing is for people to act reasonable and not leave their brains at home when they’re on vacation,” Mason said.

Sergeant Jason Daniels, the head sheriff’s deputy on Ocracoke, said Friday that preventing people passing on the right is his number one goal because of the congested streets of the village.

“If we never have another car that passes on the right, I will be a happy camper,” he said.

He also said that the vandalism of the troopers’ cars -- a brick thrown into the back windshield of one and paint splashed on the other -- is still being investigated.

For the record, here are some things islanders and vacationers should be aware of when in Ocracoke:

  • Wear your seat belt
  • Motorists cannot for any reason pass on the right in the entire state.
  • No one driving should have consumed alcohol. If you’re going out in a group, elect one as the designated driver who abstains from drinking.
  • Motorists can be stopped for any perceived violations of the law, such as, your tires crossing the center line—even if it’s to avoid a puddle, bicyclist, or a pedestrian.
  • You can get a DWI on a bicycle.
  • Bicycles are required to have visible white light at night.
  • Open containers of alcohol cannot be in a car or golf cart.
  • There’s no Ocracaoke ordinance against walking around with an open container of beer.
  • Depending on the circumstances, passengers in cars stopped for a possible DUI can be breathalized to determine if another passenger is better suited to drive, according to Captain Nyberg.
  • North Carolina law specifies how tinted your windows can be. The law allows windows to be tinted to 32 percent.  SUVs can have tinting on the back windows up to 35 percent. Troopers and deputies have tint meters to check this.
  • Make sure your vehicle’s registration is current.
  • In golf carts: Only folks 16 and older can drive them; children under 40 pounds must be restrained and in an appropriate car seat; children 40 to 80 pounds have to wear a seat belt.  Golf carts cannot go past Howard’s Pub on Highway 12.
  • Yelling loud, profane language at 2 a.m. is against the law.
  • Keep your empty prescription bottles at home and out of your car. (It’s against the law to have over a certain amount of prescription medicine, which can be investigated, Nyberg said.)
  • Indecent exposure (private parts on view in public) is against the law. Public urination with private parts on view is against the law.
  • Speeding is against the law. Speed limit in the village is mostly 20 mph. It is 25 from the Ocracoke Pizza Co. to Howard’s Pub.
  • If you are stopped, be courteous.

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