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Jurisdiction issues protect N.C. home invasion suspects

When it comes to arrests, how much does police jurisdiction matter? Is an officer allowed to make an arrest even if he's not in his department's city? These questions were raised in a recent case involving a Wrightville Beach, North Carolina, home invasion. The case also led to the demotion of two officers.

It began with a 911 call from a frightened occupant of a condominium. Two men had broken into the home while four people were inside. The occupants reported that one of the men was the ex-boyfriend of the 911 caller's roommate. The two men broke a mirror and hit the caller's roommate in the face, she said.

The occupants gave police names and descriptions of the men, and said they'd left in a white Mitsubishi. When officers arrived minutes later, the information on the home invaders was broadcast over the police radio, advising other officers to be on the lookout.

The men weren't found, but one of the women at the condo said she knew where the men lived, though she wasn't sure of their address. She offered to direct police there, riding along with a sergeant while a police corporal followed. By the time they reached the suspects' home, they were several miles out of the Wrightsville Beach Police Department's jurisdiction. County 911 dispatch center records show that the officers requested assistance from the Wilmington Police Department, but other reports indicate the Wrightsville Beach officers decided not to wait for Wilmington officers to make an arrest.

Spotting a white Mitsubishi Galant, the Wrightsville sergeant and corporal arrested the occupants, who were identified as the same men who broke into the condo. They were charged with assault on a female, breaking and entering, and property damage, all misdemeanors. But in court, prosecutors backed off out of concern for how the arrests happened. The district attorney's office dropped the criminal charges against both men, explaining that the corporal and sergeant were out of their jurisdiction, leading them to be placed on leave and stripped of their supervisory ranks.

Police departments' jurisdiction typically extends one mile outside a city, unless an emergency situation creates exigent circumstances. In those cases, an officer's authority may stretch much farther. Otherwise, jurisdiction acts as a check on police power. When that power is abused, a criminal case can quickly fall apart.

Source: Star News, "Jurisdiction issues undermined arrest," Brian Freskos, March 6, 2012

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