December 1, 2020
TO THE EDITOR:
A long-time Beaufort resident, taxpayer, and law-abiding citizen owned a vintage 26-foot sailboat that had been anchored in Taylor Creek for several years. Taxes were paid on the boat every year, and the owner had used it occasionally for recreation. Over the course of many years, there had never been an issue with the boat’s anchorage from anyone, or for any reason.
On October 2, 2018 the citizen found a laminated notice zip-tied to his boat. It said “Derelict Vessel.” It should be noted that the citizen, for over a decade, had registered and paid annual taxes on his boat. After finding this notice he contacted various agencies, including the Beaufort Police Department, attempting to obtain further information and clarification. He was given no assistance or guidance, and yet the boat owner/citizen still complied with what he believed the notice was alluding to (it was signed only by a Beaufort police officer).
He, therefore, relocated his boat from Taylor Creek to Town Creek. The citizen/owner assumed the boat would then be safe, since he had complied with the notice within the 10 days referenced on the notice/placard, and the fact that Town Creek is a Federal Harbor of Safe Refuge.
Sometime after relocating his boat, the citizen found it was missing from Town Creek. It should be noted that the only notice he ever received was placed on his boat while anchored in Taylor Creek. In a state of confusion and shock, he considered that his boat may have been stolen. He immediately began physically searching for his boat and after further investigation found that the boat had actually been removed from Town Creek, a Federal Harbor of Safe Refuge, without notice and without his consent. A friend had suggested that he check the Town of Beaufort Facebook site, upon which, to the citizen’s surprise, there was a picture of his boat. However, now his boat was no longer floating in water. The photograph showed the boat resting on its side, in gravel, and severely damaged. Subsequent to the citizen finding his boat depicted on the Town of Beaufort’s Facebook site, he became aware that his boat had, in fact, been destroyed by TowBoatUS, Beaufort under contract with the Town of Beaufort.
So, with little or no obvious or even reasonable recourse, the citizen filed a small claims lawsuit to recover his property (boat), naming the town of Beaufort, its Mayor and TowBoatUS as defendants.
The citizen prepared for the small claims court hearing with help from an assistant, but with no legal help, since small claims court is supposed to be administered and carried out so that a citizen can bring a suit without needing an attorney, and thus can present the case himself or herself.
The date of the trial, the citizen and assistant were directed to the courtroom in the Beaufort Couthouse, where they waited on the case to be heard by the assigned magistrate (who identified herself as Holly Lawrence). The first case before the magistrate that afternoon included two gentlemen representing themselves in a dispute over a construction contract. The magistrate communicated with them in a friendly manner using lay, non-legal language. The magistrate made her decision and some $4,000 was awarded.
Once the magistrate called the citizen’s case, she asked everyone involved to identify themselves. They included, Lee Sykes, owner of TowBoatUS, Morehead City, his attorney Winslow Taylor, Troy Edwards, with Beaufort Police Department, Norwood Blanchard, an attorney brought in from Wilmington, representing the town, and Everett Newton, Mayor of Beaufort.
So, the citizen, representing himself, was facing not only the defendant, but also two attorneys, and a police captain while the mayor watched in silence. This was completely unjust. As the “trial” began, the citizen offered what the assistant believed to be a sound case, including facts and documents such as the boat was not abandoned, it was not a derelict vessel, it had been registered to the citizen, taxes had been paid, no notice had been offered to the citizen regarding the town’s intent to seize the boat, nor had anyone attempted at any time to contact the citizen to notify him the boat had been taken and was going to be destroyed.
The citizen also spoke to the rights afforded by The US Constitution, through the Fourth Amendment, that protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government as well as the Fifth Amendment, allowing for due process of law. Neither the defendants nor the magistrate offered a response to this statement.
The US Constitution, through the Fourth and Fifth Amendments, protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures by the government and also allows all citizens due process of law, except, obviously not all citizens who live in Beaufort, NC.
The citizen had also brought to trial documents with photographs of the boat in Taylor Creek on the website of Southern Living Magazine, under the heading “The South’s Best Town: Beaufort, NC” and a photograph of the boat in Our State Magazine under heading of “Snowy Shores”, featuring the plaintiff’s boat. Obviously, the national media considered the citizen’s boat photogenic enough to be featured in their articles and was specifically chosen as an appropriate visual representation of Beaufort. Its doubtful either publication felt the boat was “derelict” or “abandoned”. At this point in the trial, the magistrate refused to allow these photographs to be entered as evidence, even though the citizen had requested that these documents be entered. Additionally, the citizen read aloud a portion of the town of Beaufort’s “regulation” (96.04) that had been referred to on the notice/placard attached to his boat. This was also used as a primary defense by the town’s attorney, Blanchard, from Wilmington, wherein the town was required to adhere to its own regulation, which the town of Beaufort had failed to do for some reason unknown to the citizen and his assistant.
Clearly, it would have been very easy for the town of Beaufort to contact the citizen since the town had tax documents that identified the specific boat owner as well as through the vessel’s registration.
Yet, the town chose not to. Instead they seized the boat, destroyed it, and dumped it in a landfill somewhere. It should be noted that the boat had 2300 pounds of lead in its keel. The legal definition of theft is a crime in which a person intentionally takes personal property of another without permission or consent and with the intent to convert it to the taker's use (including potential sale).
The town of Beaufort had just received a $68,000 grant from NOAA to remove “abandoned and derelict vessels”, and TowBoatUS, Beaufort, a for-profit business, unquestionably didn’t take and destroy citizen’s boat for free. So, it’s not unwarranted to suggest that the Town of Beaufort “stole” the citizen’s boat. Again, the court ignored the Fifth Amendment which also allows for “just compensation” for property taken.
According to FishingWire, an internet website discussing Beaufort’s “removal of abandoned vessels” stated that “Removal of the debris, which included more than 43 illegal and abandoned moorings, 11 vessels and more than 62 tons of debris, took several weeks. Added Sykes, “We were all saddened by the debris. Once one or two wrecks were dumped, others followed. A handful were from Hurricane Florence. Transient vessels were having difficulty anchoring and often struck unmarked submerged objects. With downtown just on the other side of the channel, it was an eyesore to everyone.” The TowBoatUS Beaufort crew hauled all of the debris ashore where the wrecks were scoured for recyclables and hazardous materials, then sent to landfills”. Wonder what happened to anything of value found on those 11 vessels? Furthermore, how many of those 11 boat owners know the whereabouts of their property? But I digress.
During the trial, Blanchard, the attorney representing the town of Beaufort, was openly aggressive towards the citizen in his verbal arguments. This was not a felony jury trial; it was small claims court. Yet, he fell silent when the citizen stated that his boat was not abandoned nor derelict, as well as, when he reiterated that the town of Beaufort had failed to follow its own regulation. Instead, Blanchard then cited several unfamiliar legal terminologies regarding “town immunity”, that neither the citizen nor the assistant recognized.
The magistrate then brought the trial to an end stating something about, “failure to waive immunity”, and added that the citizen had not proven his case. She then summarily dismissed the plaintiff’s case.
This story/incident is being sent to the Editor of The Carteret News Times for several concerning reasons. Firstly, the town of Beaufort obviously “stacked the deck” against the plaintiff (citizen) by hiring an attorney from Wilmington to argue this case. According to his firm’s website, Blanchard has expertise in defending municipalities. TowBoatUS also had paid legal representation. It is not at all clear or rational why the Town of Beaufort felt it necessary to pay an attorney from Wilmington to argue this case, when it has its own attorneys. There should be little doubt that this “hired gun” cost the local taxpayers a sizeable sum of money. The plaintiff and his assistant were perplexed and dismayed that an ordinary citizen should have to argue a case in small claims court against two well-paid attorneys. The hearing seemed very irregular, biased and frankly, unjust.
Secondly, this episode/case should be a cautionary tale for anyone in Carteret County considering filing a suit in small claims court, especially if the defendants include the Town of Beaufort and a large corporation (TowBoatUS). If a citizen has to argue his or her case against well-paid, qualified and licensed attorneys, then the whole notion and validity of small claims court is not only questionable, but appears to be a complete farce.
At least in this instance, in Carteret County, small claims court failed to provide an impartial and unbiased venue whereby a citizen may seek some manner of justice without having to hire an attorney, which many citizens simply cannot afford.
Finally, this entire incident, at least on its surface (prima facie as attorneys say), seems just another, unethical, oppressive and coercive tactic that the Town of Beaufort and its leadership continue to employ with little or no oversight by the town’s citizens. It is actually reasonable to expect a town or city to maintain legal jurisdiction over its boundaries.
However, allowing a municipality to assert free rein over its citizens with unrestrained powers, to carry out actions that are abusive, that disregard a citizen’s rights given under the US Constitution, and even its own town laws and regulations, is paramount to tyranny. Is this really what the “Coolest Small Town in America” is about? Maybe the notion of “Coolest” needs to be revised to mean “Oppressive”, at least when referring to Beaufort, NC and its leadership.