Judge orders release of police video captured during county commissioner’s arrest

Published 11:46 am Thursday, August 19, 2021

SALISBURY — A judge on Thursday morning ordered the immediate release of law enforcement video footage captured during the arrest of Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce for driving while impaired and failing to maintain lane control.

Pierce, 66, was stopped by Salisbury Police officer H.M. Lindquist around 7:23 p.m. on Sunday, June 27 near the intersection of West Innes Street and Statesville Boulevard after a person reported Pierce as a reckless driver.

Pierce showed four of six clues on the horizontal gaze test and underwent further field sobriety tests, according to the incident reports. He completed two breathalyzer tests in which he blew a 0.27 on his first attempt and 0.26 on his second. Both readings are more than three times the legal limit of .08. Pierce, whose wife was in the passenger seat, said he was on the way back from an event, where he’d consumed two glasses of wine. 

At the time, Lt. Justin Crews of the Salisbury Police Department said Pierce was belligerent toward the arresting officer and mentioned the names of other elected officials. Pierce said he’d received assurance from the other elected officials “it would be taken care of,” according to an incident report. Pierce also allegedly threatened to use his connections to get out of the charges and have the officer who pulled him over fired.

Pierce was first elected commissioner in 2012. He won a second and third term in 2016 and 2020, respectively.

The Salisbury Post and WBTV petitioned for the release of the video footage captured during the incident. In North Carolina, law enforcement agencies are prohibited from releasing footage without a judge’s order. So, the footage was delivered for a review by Superior Court Judge Richard Gottlieb. 

The Salisbury Police Department did not object to the petition. Graham Corriher, attorney for the city of Salisbury, said during Thursday’s virtual hearing that he received signed waivers consenting to the footage’s release from law enforcement officers depicted in the video.

The release of the footage was objected to by Aaron Berlin, a traffic safety prosecutor representing the Conference of District Attorneys. Berlin said Rowan County District Attorney Brandy Cook referred the matter to the organization in an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest. Berlin said he wasn’t outright objecting to the release of the footage, but believed that it should not be released now.

“I haven’t heard anything so far as to whether or why the reasoning of it being released today or a week ago would be any different from having an extension in the order being released, say, 60 days from now or until the matter is concluded,” Berlin said.

Berlin contended that delaying the release of the footage would “alleviate” any concerns about pre-trial prejudice and wouldn’t show favoritism to an elected official.

Mike Tadych, representing The Salisbury Post and WBTV in the matter, argued in favor of the footage’s immediate release on the grounds that it is of compelling public interest on the basis that Pierce is an elected official. Tadych also argued that Pierce was arrested on public property and in plain view of any nearby onlookers, meaning that there was never a pretense of privacy. 

Tadych dismissed concerns about whether the immediate release of the footage would threaten Pierce’s right to a fair trial.

“We think any concerns about pre-trial publicity can be mitigated through the tools that are already at the court’s disposal,” Tadych said.

Tadych mentioned that a judge could use alternate jurors or change of venue to ensure Pierce receives justice.

In his decision, Gottlieb agreed that the court has methods to avoid prejudice against the defendant and that the issues of concern in the video have “already been in the media.” As a result, Gottlieb said the footage’s release is “necessary to advance a compelling public interest.”

The footage will be released without any restrictions, besides the censoring of any sensitive third-party information. The video of Pierce’s arrest will be released once the order is entered by Gottlieb.

Pierce is scheduled to appear in court on Sept. 22.