Lawyer: Controversial traffic stop could have big consequences

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News 12 at 6 o'clock / Friday, Oct. 11, 2013


WAGENER, S.C. (WRDW) -- Attorney James Huff of Huff Law Firm, P.C. in North Augusta has seen the video of a traffic stop in Wagener.

Two weekends ago, a Wagener town councilman's son was pulled over by Wagener Police Department for speeding. The officer, who admits to turning off his dashcam recorder, also believes the man was Driving Under the Influence.

"Like I said, if you wouldn't have been around this area, you know, you would have probably been looking a whole lot worse situation," says Officer Dustin Johnson in the video, which was recorded with a small HD camera on his belt. "As my years of experience as a DUI specialist, you're not able to drive, okay?"

"I'm offended by it, and that's a strong word," Huff says. "And this is coming from a DUI defense attorney!"

Ultimately, the councilman's son just got a warning for speeding and was driven home by his parents. A field sobriety test was never done.

"You don't stop collecting evidence up front based on who someone is," Huff says.

But the town says no favoritism was shown. Wagener Police Chief Tom Gray told News 12 that officers commonly use discretion. He even told News 12 officers sometimes give breaks to those who need them.

"I would venture to say that there's not a person alive who has been arrested that didn't need a break. That's not the standard by which we enforce our criminal laws," Huff says.

As one of the leading DUI attorneys in the state, Huff still has grave concerns about this case. He fears the case will have a wider impact and could affect other cases. He says jurors could question fairnes, and the conviction rate could take a hit for Wagener Police.

"You may have jurors in the Wagener area that feel like, well, why should we convict Mr. Jones, when this person wasn't charged at all? So, you might have some blowback for a while," Huff says.

Based on what he's seen, he says he feels special treatment was shown in this case. However, the town says, after a conversation with the State Law Enforcement Division, SLED will not investigate.

A SLED spokesman has told News 12 that his agency never received a request for investigation.

As for why the officer turned off the dashcam, the town says, again, that's officer discretion. However, Huff says he's never known an officer to turn off a dashcam in a situation like that.

Huff actually wrote the law in South Carolina that requires officers to keep the dashcam on during DUI investigations, so he says that's another detail that almost makes him sick to his stomach.

To view the full bodycam video of the incident, see below.


Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013

WAGENER, S.C. (WRDW) -- In the small town of Wagener, rumors are spreading, but a newly released body-camera video contains big answers about a Saturday night traffic stop.

The son of a Wagener councilman was pulled over in front of Wagener-Salley High School for speeding.

"He come through around the corner over there. I locked in on him at 51 in a 30," says Officer Dustin Johnson in the video, which was recorded with a small HD camera on his belt (to view the full video, see below).

Officer Johnson is a new officer with Wagener Police Department. He started with the department back in June.

The recording begins with the driver, who was apparently driving home from a wedding, already out of the car. In the tape, Officer Johnson says the suspect is likely driving under the influence of alcohol. The officer also determine the suspect possesses multiple South Carolina drivers licenses.

"You said you got two or three licenses?" Officer Johnson asks in the recording.

"No, not in the car I don't. In my house I do," the suspect answers.

"Alright, I don't need to hear no more. That's against the law," Johnson says.

Minutes later in the recording, the boy's father, Wagener Councilman George Smith, shows up.

"How are you doing Mr. Smith?" says Officer Johnson in the video as he shakes the councilman's hand.

After doing some paperwork, the officer returns to the councilman and his son.

"As my years of experience as a DUI specialist, you're not able to drive, okay?" Officer Johnson says in the recording. "That's just from looking at you before even having to do anything else. I could tell that in your eyes as soon as you stepped into the light."

Afterwards, Johnson admits he turned off his squad car's dash-cam video recorder, so the incident wouldn't be recorded, apparently forgetting that the body camera he was wearing was still on.

"You know, it's not always about trying to write tickets or trying to put people in jail," responds Wagener Chief Tom Gray in a News 12 interview. "You know, every situation is different."

News 12 asked Chief Gray if favoritism was shown for the son of an elected official.

"Well, in any call or any traffic stop, ultimately, the officer has full discretion in whether to make a charge or not to make a charge," says Chief Gray. "Without a doubt, the situation was justly handled by the officer. He did a good job."

Gray says the video shows that the suspect isn't impaired. He says the suspect's speech is not slurred, and he appears coherent. However, in the video, Officer Johnson mentions that the suspect is intoxicated to some extent twice.

Toward the end of the recording, Officer Johnson even tells the suspect that he likely would have been charged or possibly arrested in another jurisdiction.

"Like I said, if you wouldn't have been around this area, you know, you would have probably been looking a whole lot worse situation," he says in the recording.

But in Wagener, the suspect was given just a warning for speeding. Traveling 21 miles over the speed limit would normally carry a $185 fine and four points on a license.

The video wraps up with Officer Johnson allowing the suspect to be driven home by his family members. The suspect, Officer Johnson, and Councilman Smith all exchange hand-shakes and thank-yous.

"And don't let him catch you no more," says Councilman Smith to his son in the recording.

"That's right. That's right," adds Officer Johnson.

When questioned by News 12, Councilman Smith is adamant that he did nothing wrong.

"When we got there, I told Officer Johnson, I said, 'Will you let him go home?' That's all I said to him," he tells News 12.

"Did you use your political office to influence the outcome?" asks News 12 reporter Chad Mills.

"No sir. But [Officer Johnson] knew who I was," he responds.

Wagener Police Chief Gray verifies that Smith did nothing wrong. In this case, Chief Gray says the officer made the right call by letting the suspect go home with his parents. Chief Gray says the officer never indicated that he felt his job was in jeopardy if he failed to charge or even arrest Smith's son.

Meanwhile, Smith says even though his son was drinking, he wasn't a threat.

"If it would have been your son, I'd have done the same thing," he says. "Here [he] is half a mile from home, [he was] out of the vehicle, [and he was] no danger to nobody."

But will citizens agree that favoritism wasn't shown?

"When an officer is supposed to uphold the law, he's supposed to, at all costs, uphold the law," says Pat Quattlebaum, who is from the Wagener area.

Quattlebaum was on the road that night. She says she actually saw a vehicle with a description matching that of the suspect before the traffic stop. Quattlebaum says that vehicle was approaching speeds of a hundred miles per hour.

Whatever the case, Quattlebaum wonders if she'd get the same treatment as the councilman's son.

"In your opinion, if you were in that situation, you think you'd still be in jail right now," asks reporter Mills.

"Oh, I would have people still digging to pay my bail. I'd go straight to jail. I wouldn't have passed Go," Quattlebaum shoots back.

While Chief Gray says the officer is now on paid administrative leave, he again says his officers show discretion on a case-by-case basis, so he believes this wasn't a case of favoritism.

Before the interview with Chief Gray, Wagener Mayor Michael Miller told News 12 bags of marijuana and bottles of liquor are sometimes poured out and drivers are given simple warnings. Chief Gray doesn't deny it.

"Can you say that there have been other cases where people have been drinking where they were given warnings or let off?" asks Mills.

"Yes," says Chief Gray. "Yes. There has been in my career. Absolutely. And I'm sure other officers with their particular scenario or situation have given breaks to those individuals that need them."

As for Quattlebaum, she'll continue to buckle up and keep her foot off the gas.

"As far as I'm concerned, if I'd go through Wagener right now speeding, I bet you I'd pop a ticket real quick-like," she says.

Meanwhile, News 12 is told that the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) could soon be investigating Wagener Police Department's handling of this case.

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