Two lawsuits accuse Bluffton cops of false DUI arrests with BAC under legal limit

Nicky Maxey, running for Bluffton Town Council, dropped out of the race after two weeks.

Two lawsuits filed in Beaufort County Wednesday accuse the Bluffton Police Department of wrongfully arresting two drivers for driving under the influence despite their blood-alcohol concentration levels being below the legal limit.

The plaintiffs — Colton Maxey, son of a well-known Bluffton real estate agent, and Shelby Ledbetter, former May River High School band director — were arrested for DUIs in two separate traffic stops in 2019. They’re both suing the town of Bluffton for gross negligence, false imprisonment, malicious prosecution and false arrest.

Maxey and Ledbetter are represented by attorneys Justin Bamberg and Todd Rutherford, both S.C. representatives.

The two lawsuits also claim that the Bluffton Police Department has wrongfully arrested other drivers for DUIs in the past, but do not reference specific cases. Bluffton officials knew about the problem, but failed to take action, according to the suit.

Bluffton “had increasingly arrested more people for DUI while at the same time also had an ever-increasing percentage of DUI charges dropped post-arrest. [Bluffton] created a special DUI enforcement unit that contributed to the increase in false DUI arrests,” says the suit, which was first reported by FITSNews.

Called Wednesday, Nickey Maxey, Colton’s father, said he doesn’t want anybody else to go through what happened to his son.

“Nobody who’s innocent is supposed to go to jail. That’s just wrong,” he said. “It crushed my son. Now he’s terrorized. It scared him to death.”

Reached by phone on Wednesday, Ledbetter hung up on a reporter and did not respond to a subsequent text.

A spokesperson for the town of Bluffton did not immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.

Lt. Christian Gonzales, spokesperson for the Bluffton Police Department said, “any arrest we made for DUI would have had the probable cause for that arrest,” adding that this could be established based on traffic infractions and field sobriety tests. He referred questions about other allegedly wrongful DUI arrests to the town’s attorney.

Two years ago, The Island Packet reported that Bluffton drivers charged with first-offense DUIs weren’t convicted in more than 80% of cases, making Bluffton home to the lowest DUI conviction rate in Beaufort County that year.

Bluffton received a $125,000 grant from the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety and Justice Programs in 2017 to add one officer to combat impaired driving.

The Bluffton Police Department were named Agency of the Year for DUI enforcement for departments with 26-50 employees, in March, 2019 by the S.C. Department of Public Safety. SCDPS

But, in 2019, the police department suspended the program 21 days after The Island Packet requested details about every DUI arrest made since January 2017, and on the heels of Maxey’s and Ledbetter’s high-profile arrests. The agency reassigned the program’s sole officer and said it needed to reevaluate its policies, procedures and personnel.

After the arrests of Ledbetter and Maxey, Bluffton officials said criticism of the two incidents was misguided. An officer’s decision to arrest during a DUI stop is based on an evaluation at that point in time, Bluffton Police Detective Zatch Pouchprom said in 2019. Field sobriety tests conducted on the roadside are the “heart and soul of the case,” he said.

Everything collected after a driver is placed under arrest, including breathalyzer and toxicology test results, are “evidentiary,” meaning they will be used to assess a defendant’s guilt or innocence in court, Pouchprom said.

“Once you’ve made that arrest, you don’t necessarily get to un-arrest,” said then-Bluffton Chief Chris Chapmond, even if a breathalyzer test indicates no intoxication. No blood alcohol content also does not mean other substances could be causing impairment, Chapmond said, pointing to the increased prevalence of drugged driving.

A prosecutor or officer’s decision to drop charges is just part of the “checks and balances” built into the system, he said.

TWO HIGH-PROFILE DUI ARRESTS

Before Bluffton suspended its DUI program, Cpl. Baker Odom was the department’s sole DUI enforcement officer.

He arrested Ledbetter and Maxey in 2019.

In the early-morning hours of Oct. 19, 2019, Odom stopped Ledbetter’s vehicle and administered roadside sobriety tests before arresting her. A breath test performed at Bluffton police headquarters indicated a 0.04% blood-alcohol content, below the threshold for consideration as evidence in a DUI case, reported The Packet.

Ledbetter was later fired from her job by the Beaufort County Board of Education for what the school district said were unrelated reasons. In December 2019, her charges were dropped.

Two months before Ledbetter’s arrest, Odom arrested Maxey. The then-19-year-old was charged with DUI, but his breathalyzer test recorded a BAC of zero, according to previous reporting.

The Bluffton Police Department accused Maxey of being under the influence of marijuana, but a SLED-administered toxicology report and private drug screening indicated that there were no impairing substances in his system, the newspaper reported.

The day after his his son’s arrest, Nickey Maxey announced his run for Bluffton Town Council, calling local law enforcement “lacking.” He later dropped out of the race. https://www.islandpacket.com/news/local/crime/article253094473.html

Editorial: Harry Griffin DUI case points to another problem with SC law

harry-griffin-video (copy)
Charleston City Councilman Harry Griffin refused to take a field-sobriety test or a breathalyzer test when he was arrested on May 29 by the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office. The charges were dropped this month because the arresting officer had left law enforcement. Provided

The most obvious thing to say about Charleston City Councilman Harry Griffin’s driving under the influence charge that was dropped last week is that he wasn’t exonerated. Whether he was a lucky DUI lottery winner or was unfairly stripped of the right to prove his innocence is something we’ll never know.

Fortunately, that’s not the most important thing about this case.

The most important thing about this case is that it highlights one more problem with South Carolina’s inebriation-friendly DUI law.

Mr. Griffin was arrested on May 29 when the Berkeley County Sheriff’s Office stopped him at a sobriety checkpoint and smelled alcohol on his breath. After initially telling deputies he hadn’t been drinking, he said he had “only one” drink. Then he refused to take a field sobriety test or a Breathalyzer test.

And as The Post and Courier’s Gregory Yee reports, the deputy who arrested him decided to get out of law enforcement before the case came to trial. Since Mr. Griffin’s refusal to take any sort of sobriety test meant the only evidence against him was the deputy’s video and testimony, the charge was dropped.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing is “a very common problem,” according to Steven Burritt, executive director of South Carolina Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Mr. Burritt told us that the high turnover rate among police officers in many S.C. agencies “creates a level of jeopardy for the cases they made that have not been adjudicated.”

Police are able to preserve most criminal cases, which rely on evidence beyond an officer’s observations, but other cases are usually dropped.

What does this have to do with our driving under the influence law?

First, our DUI law incentivizes people to do what Mr. Griffin did and refuse to take a sobriety test.

A state law that should discourage this says drivers who refuse to submit to a test of their blood alcohol level automatically lose their license for six months, on the spot, even before a trial.

Unfortunately, this smart law has an insane provision that allows people to go down to the DMV and get a temporary license to drive while their permanent license is suspended. That’s right: It completely undercuts the intent of the law. That’s why more than 40% of people stopped for drunken driving in South Carolina now refuse to take a test. So the only evidence against them is the arresting officer’s word.

(The S.C. Senate passed a bill this year that requires people with suspended licenses to have an ignition-interlock device installed on their vehicles before they can get a temporary license. That wouldn’t take away the incentive to refuse the test, but it could stop people from driving drunk until their case eventually is heard. Unfortunately, the House refused to consider the bill.)

But even when people submit to a blood alcohol test, the cases are still dropped when arresting officers moves on unless their agencies send another officer to court to prosecute. And they usually don’t, because the many loopholes in our DUI law make convictions unlikely. Loopholes like, for instance, the one that makes it nearly impossible to win a conviction if the suspect wanders out of range of the officer’s dashcam for even a few seconds.

Precisely because all those loopholes make DUI cases so complicated, there’s a good chance that a trial will be delayed. That increases the chance that the officer will be gone by the time the case is tried.

The best way to fix this problem is for the Legislature to fix our DUI law: to change the mother-may-I dashcam video requirements and eliminate the incentives to refuse blood alcohol tests. It’s to provide funding so prosecutors rather than police try these highly technical cases; to provide funding for our courts so the wait for a jury trial isn’t so long; and to require better training for magistrates, who usually know much less about the law than the defense attorneys appearing before them.

All of that would make DUI cases seem more winnable to police and would make driving under the influence seem like a riskier choice to drivers.

But even absent legislative action, there are other steps that can help reduce the departed-officer problem — and a host of other problems with DUI cases.

Judges can be more skeptical about defense requests for trial delays. Most of us might have been unaware of the problem with departing officers, but MADD and other organizations have documented that the odds of winning a DUI conviction go down every day a trial is delayed. You can be sure that DUI attorneys know that, too.

And police agencies can send another officer to prosecute DUI cases when the arresting officer has moved on, and the agencies can ask (or require, through subpoenas) departed officers to return and testify in some cases.

This is about a lot more than holding the occasional politician accountable, or simply winning a conviction. It’s about saving lives.

One reason so many South Carolinians are injured and killed by drunken drivers is that our state doesn’t take drunken driving seriously enough. That’s mostly the fault of the Legislature, but even with the laws we have, everybody in the criminal justice system has an opportunity to recognize and treat drunken driving as the deadly crime that it is. https://www.postandcourier.com/opinion/editorials/editorial-harry-griffin-dui-case-points-to-another-problem-with-sc-law/article_afda2c38-e9a3-11eb-8ed3-03a4f9357527.html

Brewery Surveillance Video Shows Trooper’s Actions Before Drunk Driving Crash in Southbury

NBC Universal, Inc.NBC Connecticut obtained video of a state trooper drinking at a bar before being involved in a crash that injured two women.

NBC Connecticut Investigates has obtained video from inside the bar where a Connecticut State trooper was drinking before a drunk driving crash.

Sgt. John McDonald was charged with driving drunk and injuring a Middlebury mother and daughter on September 25, 2019.

He pled no contest to the charges against him in May.

He’s currently serving probation and is still on the state payroll.

2:60State Trooper Pleads to Charges Connected To CrashA state trooper pleaded no contest Thursday to charges connected to a 2019 crash in Southbury that injured a mother and daughter.

The video gives a better look into what happened before the crash.

The surveillance video is from inside the Black Hog Brewing Company in Oxford where police say McDonald had been celebrating at a fellow trooper’s retirement party.

The state released the video through a Freedom of Information Act request now that McDonald has been convicted. Police cited this video as key evidence in McDonald’s arrest warrant.

State officials said McDonald left the hospital on his own before he could be breathalyzed.

From what investigators saw in this video, they wrote in the arrest warrant that, “McDonald consumed what appears to be at least eight (8) alcoholic beverages” between 2:19 p.m. and 5:13 p.m.

In the report, investigators said he’s later seen ordering what appears to be five more drinks, but it’s unclear what was done with them since he takes them outside.

And just before 7 p.m. that night, McDonald almost walks into a table before he exits, as is seen in the surveillance video and referred to in the arrest warrant.

Just before 7:30 p.m., police received 911 calls reporting the crash.

McDonald will be on probation for two years and the operating under the influence charge with be wiped from his record when he completes an alcohol education program.

The two women injured in the crash filed a lawsuit against McDonald that’s still pending.

McDonald’s lawyer in that civil case said his client is sorry for the pain and stress he has caused the family.

McDonald has been on desk duty since he was suspended in 2019 and is still awaiting a disciplinary hearing, almost three months after his conviction.

State Police said that disposition is pending his administrative investigation and must be done by the Office of Labor Relations in conjunction with the collective bargaining agreement. https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/investigations/brewery-surveillance-video-shows-troopers-actions-before-drunk-driving-crash-in-southbury/2539043/

Police/Fire: Out-to-towner charged in rollover that tied up beach traffic

This crash near the intersection of Concord and Thompson streets tied up Wingaersheek Beach traffic for a long period of time Tuesday afternoon until the vehicle could be towed. A Westford woman, who police say was the driver, faces a drunken driving charge.  

Gloucester police arrested a Westford woman on charges of operating under the influence of alcohol and other charges following a rollover crash Tuesday afternoon at Concord and Thompson streets.

Rachel Ann Healy, 39, of Bay Drive in Westford, also was charged with marked lane violations, speeding and negligent operation of a motor vehicle.

The crash, which occurred around 3:30 p.m., tied up Wingaersheek Beach traffic for a long period of time until the vehicle could be righted and towed. 

Healy reportedly told police she’d had “one-and-a-half beers,” and reported no injuries. 

According to the police report, Healy confirmed to responding officers that she was the driver of the rolled-over vehicle and she had been trying to “get to the ocean.”

“There appeared to be a gray 2017 Kia Sportage that had also been struck which was parked and unoccupied on the side of the road,” Officer Alexander Aiello stated in his report. “The parked vehicle had moderate damage to the front driver’s side and appeared to have been pushed into the fence at 77 Concord St. and caused minor damage to the fence.”

Aiello wrote in his report that Healy’s speech was slurred and her eyes red and glassy. Aiello also stated Healy had trouble keeping her balance.

Police said they found a cooler of beer in Healy’s SUV after it was righted by a Tally’s Towing crew.

Healy failed all four field sobriety tests administered, police said She was arrested and transported to the police station for booking.

— Times Staff

‘In other news taken from the logs of Cape Ann’s police and fire departments:

GLOUCESTER

Tuesday, July 20

11:49 p.m.: After receiving multiple calls from across the Annisquam River reporting a disturbance at Wingaersheek Beach, police responded and reported a search of the area was unsuccessful.

9:11 a.m.: Police said they will cite a 59-year-old Gloucester man for operating a moped after the suspension of his driver’s license after a crash on Cherry Street.

The operator, who was transported to Beverly Hospital with non-life threatening injuries, told police he was traveling south on Cherry Street when he struck the curb and sidewalk and was thrown from the moped. The moped crashed into nearby shrubs.

ROCKPORT

Wednesday, July 21

2:26 a.m.: Medical emergency on Rowe Point. The person was transported by ambulance to Addison Gilbert Hospital in Gloucester. 

12:25 a.m.: Officers dismissed a group of students partying by the southern woods on Jerden’s Lane. 

Tuesday, July 20

9:11 p.m.: A driver on South Street received a verbal warning for a marked lanes violation. 

8:32 p.m.: A Mt. Pleasant Street resident reported his or her condo had been falsely put up for sale on Craigslist. Officers advised the person to contact Craigslist and report the false ad. 

5:35 p.m.: Report of a broken car window on Forest Street. Officers found a rock inside the car and small point of impact on the window. No foul play is suspected at this time. 

1:55 p.m.: Report of a truck backing into a car on Breakwater Avenue. No injuries were reported and the car sustained minor damage. Information was exchanged between the two drivers. 

Bad bacteria: Officers dismissed a group of swimmers from Old Garden and Front beaches at 12:15 and 12:39 p.m., respectively. The Board of Health has temporarily banned swimming at the two beaches due to high levels of bacteria. 

11:27 a.m.: Report of an irate customer arguing with employees at Lattof Farm Kitchen on Main Street. The customer reportedly grabbed some products, threw a handful of cash at the employees and drove off. The cash was enough to cover what the customer took. Employees gave police the customer’s license plate number and requested a no-trespassing order against the individual. Officers were unable to make contact with the customer. 

MANCHESTER

Tuesday, July 20

12:55 p.m.: Report of a car with a blown-out tire on Route 128 northbound. Officers checked the area and were unable to locate the car in question. 

ESSEX

Wednesday, July 21

6:48 a.m.: A driver on Southern Avenue received a citation for speeding. 

Tuesday, July 20

10:20 p.m.: A driver on Eastern Avenue received a verbal warning for speeding. 

9:22 p.m.: Report of a carbon monoxide alarm at a John Wise Avenue home. Firefighters detected carbon monoxide coming from a stove that was accidentally left on. The home was ventilated and firefighters cleared a short while later. 

Medical emergencies: The rescue squad responded at Willow Court at 12:15 p.m. and on Gregory Island Road at 12:39 p.m. Both were transported by ambulance to a hospital. https://www.gloucestertimes.com/news/local_news/police-fire-out-to-towner-charged-in-rollover-that-tied-up-beach-traffic/article_87197bb7-63e9-547c-b965-e372eea973e9.html

Woman arrested for OVI after crashing into Kettering home

East Dorothy Lane car into house

KETTERING — A woman was arrested on suspicion of OVI after police said she crashed into a house on East Dorothy Lane overnight.

The woman crashed into the house in the 600 block of East Dorothy around 11 p.m. Monday and then left the scene.

Officers ended up finding her and the damaged car at the Speedway on the corner of East Dorothy and Oakmont Avenue.

The car was described as having heavy damage to the front of it.

The woman involved in the crash was not immediately identified.