DEPT. OF ENVIRONMENT v. Carroll, 329PA03.

Docket NºNo. 329PA03.
Citation599 S.E.2d 888, 358 N.C. 649
Case DateAugust 13, 2004
CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of North Carolina

599 S.E.2d 888
358 N.C. 649

L. Clifton CARROLL, Respondent

No. 329PA03.

Supreme Court of North Carolina.

August 13, 2004.

599 S.E.2d 890
Roy Cooper, Attorney General, by Edwin Lee Gavin II, Assistant Attorney General, for petitioner-appellee

The McGuinness Law Firm, by J. Michael McGuinness, Elizabethtown, for respondent-appellant.

Richard Hendrix, Stem, on behalf of Southern States Police Benevolent Association and North Carolina Police Benevolent Association, amici curiae.

MARTIN, Justice.

On 13 April 1998, petitioner North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) demoted respondent Ranger L. Clifton Carroll (Ranger Carroll) from Park Ranger III to Park Ranger II and ordered a 5% reduction in his salary. Ranger Carroll filed a petition for a contested case hearing pursuant to N.C.G.S. § 126-34.1(a), and the case came on for hearing before Administrative Law Judge Beecher R. Gray on 30 July 1999. On 22 October 1999, Judge Gray entered a Recommended Decision directing that Ranger Carroll be reinstated to the position of Ranger III with back pay from the date of his demotion. In a Decision and Order signed 15 March 2000, the State Personnel Commission (SPC) unanimously adopted Judge Gray's recommended findings of fact and conclusions of law and ordered that Ranger Carroll be reinstated with back pay.

On 14 April 2000, DENR filed a petition for judicial review in Wake County Superior Court. On 4 March 2002, the trial court reversed the Decision and Order of the SPC. Ranger Carroll appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's order in an unpublished opinion. N.C. Dep't of Env't & Natural Res. v. Carroll, 157 N.C.App. 717, 580 S.E.2d 99 (2003). We allowed Ranger Carroll's petition for discretionary review and now reverse.


Ranger Carroll has served with DENR's Parks and Recreation Division (the Division) for almost twenty years. Prior to his demotion on 13 April 1998, he held the position of Park Ranger III. In that capacity, Ranger Carroll was responsible for many facets of the operation of Fort Fisher State Recreation Area (Fort Fisher), including hiring and supervising summer staff, protecting natural resources, and providing law enforcement protection. As a sworn law enforcement officer, Ranger Carroll was trained and authorized to carry a sidearm, to use deadly force, and to effect an arrest. Apart from his April 1998 demotion, Ranger Carroll has never been subject to any disciplinary action by the Division.

599 S.E.2d 891
At 8:00 a.m. on Saturday, 21 February 1998, Ranger Carroll met with a crew of sixty volunteers at Fort Fisher to coordinate the planting of Christmas trees along the dunes of the beach. Ranger Carroll was supervising this project when, at approximately 9:20 a.m., he received a call from his wife informing him that his eighty-five-year-old mother, who suffered from dementia and resided in the Alzheimer's unit of a nursing home in Southern Pines, had collapsed and was unresponsive. Just a week prior to his mother's collapse, the nursing home, Saint Joseph of the Pines (Saint Joseph's), had informed Ranger Carroll that his mother was showing signs of congestive heart failure. Ranger Carroll had a "very close" relationship with his mother and considered it his "obligation as her son to take care of her."

According to Ranger Carroll, his wife called to inform him that he "needed to call [Saint Joseph's] to confirm [his] permission to admit [his mother] to the hospital." Although his wife had attempted to give her permission to Saint Joseph's over the telephone, Ranger Carroll testified, "there was a question in everyone's mind ... that [he], Clifton Carroll, her son, had to give the permission." Nurse Linda Reynolds (Nurse Reynolds), who placed the initial call to Ranger Carroll's wife, testified that she had attempted to reach Ranger Carroll to obtain any necessary authorizations, as he had the power of attorney for his mother's health care decisions. Nurse Reynolds described the situation with Ranger Carroll's mother as "very serious."

After trying unsuccessfully to reach Saint Joseph's by cellular telephone, Ranger Carroll resolved to return to his personal vehicle and either begin the long drive to Southern Pines or at least "get somewhere to contact the rest home" in order to attend to his mother's medical emergency. Accordingly, Ranger Carroll quickly relayed instructions to the volunteers in his vicinity and two coworkers who were helping to oversee the project, and then began the six-mile drive to Carolina Beach Park, where his personal vehicle was parked.

Ranger Carroll set out from Fort Fisher in his official vehicle and proceeded north on U.S. Highway 421. Upon entering the city limits of Kure Beach, however, he found himself stuck in slow traffic behind a "line of cars [traveling] bumper to bumper" in his lane. In an attempt to clear traffic, Ranger Carroll turned on his emergency flashers and dash-mounted blue lights. The cars ahead of him did not seem to notice, and soon traffic returned to the posted speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour.

As traffic cleared and he left the Kure Beach city limits, Ranger Carroll exceeded the speed limit for approximately six-tenths of a mile by driving up to forty-five miles per hour in a thirty-five mile per hour zone. He also exceeded the speed limit for approximately one mile along a straight and open stretch of Dow Road by driving up to seventy-five miles per hour in a fifty-five mile per hour zone. Before exceeding both speed limits, Ranger Carroll confirmed that there was no traffic ahead of him and that there were no pedestrians or vehicles on either side of the road. At the time he exceeded the fifty-five mile per hour limit on Dow Road, the road ran straight and Ranger Carroll had a clear view for a long distance ahead.

Upon arrival at the Carolina Beach State Park office, Ranger Carroll parked his official vehicle near his personal vehicle and ran into the office building to call Saint Joseph's. Using the park office telephone, he successfully reached the Alzheimer's unit and within a few minutes was speaking with Nurse Reynolds, who updated him on his mother's condition.

Unbeknownst to Ranger Carroll, three Carolina Beach police officers arrived by patrol car at the park office while he was talking to Nurse Reynolds. The first to arrive was Detective William Jones, who had observed the flashing blue lights on Ranger Carroll's vehicle while engaged in a traffic stop in Kure Beach. Because the combined use of emergency flashers and blue lights, sometimes referred to as "running emergency traffic," designates an emergency situation to law enforcement officers, Detective Jones had followed Ranger Carroll to Carolina Beach to render assistance, if needed, to a state park officer. Next on the scene were Lieutenant Buck Jarman and Corporal

599 S.E.2d 892
Kurt Bartley, who arrived to provide backup for Detective Jones

The three officers inspected Ranger Carroll's vehicle and the area around the building. Then, as Lieutenant Jarman waited in his patrol car, Detective Jones and Corporal Bartley walked to the park office building and knocked on the front door approximately four different times. Ranger Carroll heard voices outside the door but could not discern what was being said. Intent on communicating with Nurse Reynolds about his mother, he did not initially respond to the knocking at the door. Because the door to the office was solid and the blinds in the office were shut, Ranger Carroll did not see the uniformed officers standing outside the door or their patrol cars parked outside. After Detective Jones and Corporal Bartley knocked loudly for a fourth time on the office door, Ranger Carroll pulled the telephone from his mouth to respond.

The nature of Ranger Carroll's response was the subject of conflicting testimony at the 30 July 1999 hearing. Corporal Bartley and Detective Jones both testified that Ranger Carroll used profanity in telling them to wait until he was off the telephone, although neither took offense at the language used. Ranger Carroll, however, denied using profanity, testifying that he merely yelled "[w]ait a minute" in a "very loud, drawn-out manner." Nurse Reynolds, who was on the telephone with Ranger Carroll at the time, testified that she heard Ranger Carroll say something to the effect of "I'll be there in a minute" and that she "didn't hear any foul language."

After responding orally to the officers' knocks, Ranger Carroll quickly finished his conversation with Nurse Reynolds and opened the door to the office. Ranger Carroll then explained the situation to the officers and apologized for having caused them to come to the park. The officers told Ranger Carroll there was "no problem" and promptly left the premises, satisfied that their presence was not required.

After the other two officers had left, Detective Jones engaged in further discussion with Ranger Carroll. This discussion was also the subject of conflicting testimony at the 30 July 1999 hearing. Detective Jones testified that he informed Ranger Carroll that the officers had been concerned because of Ranger Carroll's speed and his use of emergency flashers and blue lights. According to Detective Jones, Ranger Carroll, who had previously been "calm," suddenly became indignant and asked in a sarcastic tone of voice, "Why, have you got a problem with me running emergency traffic?" Ranger Carroll, on the other hand, testified that he had asked Detective Jones if "there [was] a problem" in a "quiet and apologetic" manner. According to Ranger Carroll, his intent was to inquire sincerely whether he had "caused [Detective Jones] a problem." Ranger Carroll acknowledged that the words he chose "were awkward and didn't flow smoothly," but insisted that despite his use of the word...

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