Transfer of State Bureau of Investigation to Department of Public Safety Causes Suspicion Across the Aisle

After seventy-five years of supervision by the attorney general, the State Bureau of Investigation will now be the governor's responsibility thanks to the Appropriations Act of 2014.

Photo by Ryan Gessner (Flickr)

North Carolina’s 2014-2015 budget bill removed the State Bureau of Investigation (“SBI”) from the control of the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) and placed the SBI as a new section within the Law Enforcement Division of the Department of Public Safety (“DPS”).  The SBI will be an independent agency, with a director being appointed by the governor for an eight-year term, subject to confirmation by the General Assembly.  Governor Pat McCrory named Bernard Collier II as acting SBI Director hours after signing the Appropriations bill into law.  Collier served 26 years as an SBI agent before becoming the director of Alcohol Law Enforcement in 2013.

SBI’s purpose is to assist law enforcement with criminal investigations throughout the state.  Though it usually operates upon request from local law enforcement, SBI retains original jurisdiction in several areas, such as arson investigations, drug investigations, theft and misuse of state property, and election law violations.  It is divided into three major areas: Field Investigation, the Crime Laboratory, and the Division of Criminal Information.  The Crime Laboratory will remain within the DOJ while the remaining portions have been transferred to the DPS.

The SBI was originally created by the General Assembly in 1925 as a part of the prison department, with the deputy warden as its director.  Its responsibilities included collecting police information, managing criminal records in the state and other states for local law enforcement officials to use, and collecting fingerprints of all felons within the state.

Yet, the SBI was able to take on its modern investigative role when the General Assembly created the State Bureau of Identification and Investigation (“SBII”) in 1937.  Legislation creating the SBII added new duties, such as investigation of mob violence and election fraud, fraud involving social security, and assistance to local law enforcement.  The SBII was also tasked with keeping more detailed statistics on crime and criminals within the state.  Moreover, the legislature provided for the creation of a modern crime laboratory.

The SBII was transferred to the DOJ in 1939, becoming the SBI.  This move put the SBI under the supervision of the state attorney Ggneral.  It gained further duties over the years until 1971, when the SBI became a division within the re-created Department of Justice.  However, the SBI still remained under the supervision of the Attorney General’s Office until July 1, 2014, when the Appropriations Act went into effect.

Many are wary of the new arrangement of the SBI, especially the timing of such a change.

The former structure of the SBI was unique, due to the fact that only a small number of states have their state investigatory agency headed by the state attorney general.  Additionally, this structure is similar to federal government, comparing the SBI to the Federal Bureau of Investigation within the U.S. Department of Justice.  The DOJ is a part of the executive branch in both North Carolina and the federal government, with their duties including investigation of the government itself.  However, the President, subject to Senate confirmation, appoints the attorney general of the USDOJ, while the people elect the North Carolina attorney general.

Many are wary of the new arrangement of the SBI, especially the timing of such a change.  The transfer of the SBI from the attorney general’s supervision to the governor’s is a change that raises the question of whether or not the decision was politically motivated.  One point of interest is that Roy Cooper, North Carolina’s current attorney general, has indicated an interest in running for the governorship in 2016, presumably in opposition to Pat McCrory.  The alterations made to SBI put significantly more control over statewide law enforcement in the hands of the governor while taking that control away from the attorney general.

The SBI is currently in the process of investigating illegal campaign funding and allegations regarding a cozy relationship between the Department of Natural Resources and Duke Energy in light of the recent coal ash spill.  Other ongoing investigations by the SBI involve DPS, the agency into which it has been placed by the Appropriations Act.  Thus, another worry is whether the SBI will truly be independent of political motivations under the new structure.  A spokesman for McCrory has stated that “the political status of reporting to an elected official will be the same” because the attorney general is also an elected position.  Additionally, proponents argue that the SBI director will be insulated from politics because, once elected, the governor cannot fire the appointed and affirmed director.  Further, an eight-year term means the director is likely to serve under more than governor.

Governor McCrory’s choice of interim director may indicate a different approach to the way the SBI will operate, putting more of a focus on law enforcement than before.

Governor McCrory has repeatedly stated that he has no interest in tainting law enforcement activities with politics.  Yet, many feel that if politics did not play a role, then why would the governor replace the SBI director with one of his own choosing hours after signing the Appropriations Bill?

The N.C. Association of Police Chiefs and the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association do not share the governor’s positive attitude toward the SBI’s independence in its new home.  Both of these groups are concerned that the SBI will be too separated from the elected official charged with its supervision to adequately address its needs.  They additionally believe that in the grand scheme of the governor’s multitude of duties, the SBI will not get enough attention, resulting in inefficiency.  This is certainly a legitimate concern considering the fact that the SBI, already handicapped by inadequate funding, will likely suffer further budget cuts in order to meet the proposed $1 million savings this transfer proposed to save the state.

Despite its timing, the idea of moving the SBI from the DOJ to DPS has been in the works for quite some time.  Governor McCrory did not begin to support the idea until this year, and his choice of interim director may indicate a different approach to the way the SBI will operate, putting more of a focus on law enforcement than before.  Collier, the new acting SBI director, has extensive experience as an SBI agent, yet his immediate predecessors had a background in law.

A shift in focus may have been the reason McCrory chose someone with extensive experience in law enforcement to lead the SBI so quickly after signing the bill.  Collier’s 26-year background with the SBI includes service as a drug investigator, pilot, arson and crime scene agent, canine handler, and bomb squad commander.  When appointed director of Alcohol Law Enforcement (“ALE”) last year, he was in charge of the N.C. Information Sharing and Analysis Center, which is responsible for criminal information and intelligence gathering.

All state law enforcement is now within the DPS, which is argued to promote sharing of information and efficiency of law enforcement duties.

Also a part of the Appropriations Bill is the transfer of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission from the Commerce Department to DPS.  Additionally, ALE will be incorporated as a branch of the SBI.  ALE not only enforces the alcohol laws, but also controlled substance, tobacco, and gambling laws.  As a result, all state law enforcement is now within DPS, which supporters of the changes are will promote sharing of information and efficiency of law enforcement duties.

The question remains whether or not the transfer is a political power play, or a move toward efficiency and separation from politics.  Keeping in mind the likely costs and the benefits of the new arrangement, this is question will not be answered for some time.

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About Forrest Fallanca, Senior Staff Writer (13 Articles)
Forrest Fallanca served as a Senior Staff Writer for the Campbell Law Observer. He graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2011 with a degree in International Studies and a minor in Philosophy. In the summer of 2013, Forrest assisted a member of the Appellate Rules Committee in researching for a guide on the appealability of interlocutory orders in North Carolina Courts. He has also worked as a legal extern at Duke Energy Progress, Inc. and as an intern at the Department of Justice, Education Section. Forrest graduated from Campbell Law School in May 2015.
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