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North Carolina Criminal Law 20-157(f) - Unlawfully Passing an Emergency or Public Service Vehicle

In North Carolina, unlawfully passing an emergency or public service vehicle is often referred to as the “move over law” by criminal defense lawyers. Depending on circumstances, this offense can be considered an infraction, misdemeanor, or felony.

When an emergency vehicle is stopped on the shoulder of the road with lights flashing or siren sounding, the NC law requires drivers to reduce their speed and approach cautiously. There are specific requirements depending on the type of road.

  • Multi-Lane Roads/Highways: Drivers are required to move a lane that is not the lane nearest the stopped emergency vehicle, so long as the driver can do so safely and without interfering with other traffic.

  • Two-Lane Roads: Drivers are required to slow down to a reduced and safe speed, and must be prepared to stop until they are completely past the stopped emergency vehicle.

The State of North Carolina (through the Assistant District Attorney or “DA”) bears the burden of proving each element of the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt for all criminal matters, including Chapter 20 motor vehicle violations. Specifically, the “State” must prove that:

  1. An emergency vehicle was stopped and giving a warning signal on a roadway
  2. The driver failed to change lanes when traveling in the lane closest to the emergency vehicle or
  3. The driver failed to reduce speed if on a two-lane road
2. Examples of Unlawfully Passing an Emergency/Public Service Vehicle

Defendant is driving on 1-77 on the north side of Charlotte through Mecklenburg County. On the right side of the highway, a State Trooper is stopped behind another vehicle with blue lights flashing. Traffic is light and the other lanes are open, however the Defendant continues driving in the lane closest to the State Trooper at the posted speed limit and does not move over to the other open lanes. In this case, no property damage or physical injury occurred as a result of the Defendant’s failure to change lanes. The Defendant could be charged with unlawfully passing an emergency or public service vehicle, in this case an infraction.

The Defendant is driving on 485 heading to Gastonia and sees flashing lights from a distance. When the defendant gets closer, he can see there was a car accident and various emergency vehicles are stopped on the side of the road. There are both blue lights and red lights flashing. The Defendant remains in the lane closest to the vehicles and slightly reduces his speed. As the Defendant is passing the accident, he collides with the back corner an ambulance. In this case, property damage occurred as a result of the Defendant’s failure to move over and/or change lanes. The Defendant could be charged with unlawfully passing an emergency or public service vehicle, in this case a class 1 misdemeanor offense.

The Defendant is driving to work and merges onto the highway. A mile down the road, police officers are investigating an accident scene. The police officers have placed cones around the area and have the blue lights flashing in their parked patrol cars. The Defendant was distracted and runs over a cone, overcorrects, and strikes an officer. The officer is taken to the Emergency Room with life threatening injuries. The Defendant could be charged with unlawfully passing an emergency/public service vehicle, in this case a felony offense due to the serious injury/possible death.

3. Related Offenses

Other related crimes offenses include:

4. Defenses

A Defendant may be able to challenge this offense by showing the conditions were not safe to change lanes, that there wasn’t an emergency vehicle stopped or giving a warning signal, etc. It is important that you consult with a criminal defense attorney to discuss the appropriate defense for your specific case.

5. Penalties and Punishment

Unlawfully passing an emergency vehicle or public service vehicle can be an infraction, Misdemeanor, or a Felony offense depending on the circumstances.

  • It is an infraction if no accident, property damage, or physical injuries occur as a result of the Defendant’s failure to move over. An infraction is punishable by a $250 fine + court costs, and carries license points.

  • It is a Class 1 Misdemeanor if there is an accident involving property damage or physical injuries as a result of the Defendant’s failure to move over. A Class 1 Misdemeanor carries a maximum punishment of 120 days in jail, $500 fine, and court costs.

  • It is a Class F Felony if the Defendant’s failure to move over causes serious bodily injury or death to a law enforcement officer, firefights, emergency vehicle operator or utility worker. A Class F felony carries a maximum punishment of 59 months imprisonment.

The Misdemeanor and Felony Punishment Charts both provide for Active, Intermediate, and Suspended punishments depending on the Defendant’s prior record level.

A conviction of unlawfully passing an emergency or public service vehicle may result in license/insurance points and possible suspension of your Drivers License by the Division of Motor Vehicles (NC DMV).

6. Legal Counsel / Representation

If you’ve been charged or cited with unlawfully passing an emergency or public service vehicle, it is important to contact an attorney to help reduce possible penalties, if possible, and defend you in court.

Powers Law Firm PA offers free, confidential consultations for criminal charges in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. CALL NOW 704-342-4357.

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