It’s never been an easy nine miles to patrol. Now, officers are asking state legislators for a little help.
“It’s simply a matter of public safety,” said Sgt. William Laton, who patrols Lake Wylie for North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
Laton’s agency is asking in North Carolina for what his counterparts at South Carolina Department of Natural Resources are in Columbia — more freedom to enforce laws on bi-state bodies of water. And there may be no better example than Lake Wylie.
“The problem is the state line is not clearly defined,” Laton said.
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This year, the Carolinas ended a decades-long task of resetting the 333-mile boundary between them started when confusion arose in the three counties — York in South Carolina, Mecklenburg and Gaston in North Carolina — surrounding the lake. The change corrected survey errors dating back hundreds of years.
Homes and businesses swapped states. But what was tricky on land is almost impossible to determine from a boat dozens of feet above the lake bed.
“Historically, our officers do not go into South Carolina,” Laton said.
Even when pinpointing a state line isn’t the issue, the layout of the lake can be. The state line runs the length of the lake. So unless a boater is deep in a cove or fork of the river, the vessel is never more than a good drift from the other state. Boaters can see both state shores from just about anywhere on the main channel.
This means a boater who sees a North Carolina officer approaching could end up in South Carolina waters before the officer boards, or vice versa.
“We don’t want to enforce the law in South Carolina, but we don’t want to see people riding away from us,” Laton said.
Lake Wylie has a history of bringing the states together for common goals, including the creation of groups such as Lake Wylie Marine Commission and Catawba-Wateree River Basin Advisory Commission. The marine commission is looking into a task force to help both states with whatever law changes might help officers on Wylie.
“Any law enforcement officer on Lake Wylie ought to be able to see a violation and issue a citation,” said commission member Neil Brennan, representing Gaston County.
Officers can pursue a suspect now when chasing a felony. For misdemeanors, they don’t.
Regardless how serious the crime, Laton said, issues arise in prosecuting cases. Rules are different for law enforcement testifying in each state. Rules also state a suspect has to be tried in the county where an incident occurs.
Laton isn’t sure he would be able to testify in York County given current rules, or at least sees his testimony being challenged by a lawyer.
“I don’t know that the court would recognize that,” he said.
Joe Stowe, executive director of the marine commission, said differing laws are an issue, such as where and how long suspects can be held without an arrest.
“It’s a complicated system,” Stowe said.
Commissioner Tim Mead, also an initial member of the river basin advisory commission, said the latter group could be useful making changes to boating law enforcement. The river basin group brings legislators from both states to the table, along with water experts and citizens.
“It seems to provide the model, and for how something like this might proceed,” Mead said.
Six agencies routinely patrol Lake Wylie. Police from York, Mecklenburg and Gaston counties provide local coverage. North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission and South Carolina Department of Natural Resources bring state officers. The U.S. Coast Guard also runs on the lake during peak season and holidays.