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

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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

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