Friday, September 12, 2008

A Conservative Viewpoint
- Chowan’s Watermelongate

Article by Bob Steinburg
- Edenton, North Carolina: Cradle of the Colony

Growing up in a small town, many hours were spent with friends outdoors. Farmers’ crops were often adjacent to the fields where we played. Apple and pear trees, tomatoes and grapes were often within reach. Sometimes we’d enter the orchards to grab a piece of fruit. The farmers who caught us would often yell things like, “How do you like the apples boys?”

Driving back from the airport recently with guests who were visiting from New York, we passed a field where cotton was being grown. I pulled my vehicle off to the side of the road, exited the car and broke off a branch of cotton to show our visitors. I didn’t know I risked being arrested and charged with a felony.

North Carolina General Statute 14-78, on the books since 1811, says that taking any “ungathered” crops from someone’s field is a Class H felony with a maximum penalty of 30 months in prison. How many folks know that?

Alvin Park’s recent column in The Salisbury (N. C.) Post entitled “Confessions of a watermelon thief” describes one of the rights of passage for a young man growing up in the south in the ‘50s and ‘60s was to steal a watermelon out of a watermelon patch and eat it. How many men who grew up there remember that? Anyone ever arrested?

On August 21 Dana Soles, a candidate for Chowan County commissioner from Rocky Hock, was caught picking up a watermelon in a field, which police reports indicate was harvested. Soles said he was bringing it to a friend’s family who has been out of work.

According to The Virginian-Pilot, Chowan County Deputy Sheriff John McArthur, son of the clerk of Chowan’s Superior Court Mike McArthur, pulled up along side of Soles vehicle parked next to a watermelon field leased to Willis Ray Byrum. The deputy asked if Soles needed help. Soles said no. Soles said McArthur asked him if he was stealing watermelons. Soles said no but ultimately admitted he had taken just one.

According to Soles, the deputy then asked him if he knew that stealing a watermelon was a felony. Soles said “absolutely not” and offered to pay for it. Soles also told the deputy that he was running for county commissioner in Chowan and that he wasn’t aware he was committing a felony. He said he’d witnessed others in recent days doing the same thing in various watermelon fields he’d pass so thought there would be nothing wrong with stopping this once to pick one for a friend. Soles was wrong for not checking with the farmer first, regardless of what he may have previously observed. In the strictest sense of the word, it’s still taking something that doesn’t belong to you.

Soles said that after McArthur learned he was a candidate for county commissioner, he went back to his patrol car. When he returned, the deputy said he had spoken with the sheriff personally and that the sheriff would be handling the situation going forward. Soles was free to go.

The sheriff of Chowan County is Dwayne Goodwin. Goodwin’s brother is Chowan County Commissioner Kenny Goodwin who is running for reelection in Rocky Hock against Alex Stallings. Soles is running for the other Rocky Hock seat against former County Commissioner Emmett Winborne. The Goodwin boy’s late father was a county commissioner from Rocky Hock.

Eight days after McArthur first encountered Soles with the watermelon, he arrived on his doorstep with a warrant charging Soles with a felony. The warrant was signed by McArthur and Chowan County Magistrate Jim Bubela. The delay of eight days and the fact McArthur, an experienced lawman, did not issue a citation on the spot, choosing instead to hand it off to Sheriff Goodwin, appears suspicious as to motive.

Dana Soles took a watermelon. He was wrong. “Ignorance of the law is no excuse” he said. “Watermelons were rotting out there and I honestly didn’t know it was a crime to remove one.”

National Public Radio, United Press International and the Associated Press picked up this story and fed it to newspapers and other media outlets across the country. I doubt they did so because this was a shining example of stellar law enforcement to share with the world.

Byrum told me he didn’t know the charge was categorized as a felony and that when Sheriff Goodwin contacted him to see if he wanted to press charges he replied, “Just do what you gotta do.” Byrum added, “I just left it up to the sheriff.”

I asked Sheriff Goodwin if a family member, friend or one of his deputies were caught taking a single watermelon from a field would he charge them with a felony. He incredulously answered “yes.” His wife might be surprised to hear that.

Earl Roundtree of Gates County said this arrest was “ridiculous” and appeared “suspect” given the upcoming election.

Dianne Layden of Perquimans County had no recollection of anyone ever being prosecuted for something this “silly.” She said, “A truckload of watermelons yes-but one watermelon? You’ve got to be kidding?”

The courts will decide this week if Soles watermelon peccadillo will result in him being sent to prison for 30 months and losing his job and the ability to support his family. If convicted of this felony he will also have to withdraw from his race for commissioner, the least of his worries at this point.

Sheriff Goodwin told me one of his favorite shows is the Andy Griffith Show, which continues today in reruns and centers on a sheriff who lives in a small rural North Carolina town. Sheriff Andy Taylor dispenses justice with common sense and good judgment, the hallmark of good law enforcement. Chowan County may not be Mayberry, but those who live here think this is still a place where reason, wisdom and impartiality prevail. It certainly didn’t in this case.

It is arbitrary abuse of power such as this that harms our nation and feeds the growing war between the political parties. However, it is expected that Republicans (whether conservative or libertarian) will be treated with this kind of double standard. Liberals have the power in most local jurisdictions and they have long used it to criminalize being Republican. How Dana was to know about this law when it is never enforced is not known. I suspect he has a better understanding of how Scooter Libby feels.


At 10:55 AM , Blogger Unknown said...

Please check out for more information about Chowan County government

At 11:50 AM , Blogger Yes Man said...

Dean, is Bob assuming that Butterfield has won the election in 2008? Nice party loyalty, huh?

From A Great Man!

October 9th, 2008

This is a email I received from Bob Steinburg today, to Paulette and I. This is probably the nicest letter I have ever received in my life and I thank him. I wanted to share it with all of you.


Dearest Ladies,

You are so very kind-too kind with your platitudes. What a wonderful group of folks. Every time I come to Gates for one thing or the other I fall in love with the people.

They are the ones that inspire me to write my column and to stay involved. And there are so many more like them all over the northeastern part of the state.

I came away from your event with my faith restored in humanity and with the certainty that we have to end racial prejudice once and for all. We are all GOD’s children and equal-period!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I am honored to have had the opportunity to be with you and I mean that. Marie loves you all as well.

Please do not get discouraged-we all do from time to time-and give up the fight. We must persevere against very difficult odds but we can do it. Remember-”Whenever two or three are gathered together in THY name I will be in the midst of them.” Well that piece of scripture pertains to all of us as well who gather and work to do HIS will.

There will be dark days but as long as we’re doing what we do for the right reasons-and we are-we will prevail in the end.

I am so proud of you both and thankful that you have come into my life. I will stand with you if you’ll stand with me and we’ll make some serious changes that will benefit all of the folks in northeastern North Carolina.

Please extend my very best wishes to all of the good people in Gates county and tell that wonderful man in the back row with the Obama hat on that he has a wonderful and generous heart which glows from the inside out. GOD bless him.

As for elected politics, I’ve had many approach me about running for Congess against Butterfield in 2010.

That would be very difficult but if I feel GOD is calling me to serve in that capacity than I would have to pray on it very seriously. It would take a lot of work and support from black and white, Republicans and Democrats to make it happen.

Butterfield is a very powerful man but too liberal on the social and family issues that mean so much to conservative’s. He will have been in 3 terms in 2010 and as I discussed with you good folks the other night, that’s long enough for anyone.

I do know this though. I want to do whatever I can to improve the lives of ALL of the people in northeastern North Carolina in any way I can.

Please know my prayers are with all of you and I am here whenever you need me. And again thank you for your warm hospitality and graciousness to Marie and I.

GOD bless you both and your familys, friends and neighbors.

In GOD we trust




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