Law enforcement claims cost state $17 million

By: Tim Smith. Source: The State.

Stanley Brown lay on the ground on a Charleston street for about two minutes following a police chase in 2010 when he felt “something hit me in the back” and he blacked out, he later testified.

Police testified an officer had made a “knee strike” aimed at Brown’s upper thigh that ended up near his rib cage after Brown moved.

Although Brown complained he could not feel his legs, an emergency room doctor received no information indicating any significant trauma, the records show, and did not look at his vertebrae before clearing him to be transferred to the detention center.

The next morning, a detention center nurse discovered Brown lying in his own excrement, unable to move his legs. He returned to the Medical University of South Carolina, where doctors found three cracked vertebrae.

Last year, the State Insurance Reserve Fund, which covers claims made against state and local agencies, paid Brown $700,000 to resolve his claims and another $200,000 for legal fees to defend the agencies and officers he sued.

His case is one of hundreds of claims involving law enforcement agencies, detention centers, jails or prisons that were concluded last year after payouts totaling $17.6 million, according to a review of state Insurance Reserve Fund records provided to The Greenville News under the state Freedom of Information Act.

While the case earlier this year of a white police officer charged with shooting to death an unarmed black man in North Charleston captured the attention of the state and the nation, allegations of excessive force, police brutality and civil rights violations in South Carolina have not been limited to a single incident, according to a review of claims, court records and interviews with lawyers, law enforcement officials and others.

State Rep. Joe Neal, a Richland County Democrat and minister who speaks out on social and race relations issues, said the amount paid in claims “suggests to me there is a significant problem in South Carolina and in law enforcement in regards to these issues.

“Which suggests to me that we need, as a state, more information about what’s happening in contacts between law enforcement and the public,” he said.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, a Columbia Democrat and lawyer who has handled complaints against law enforcement, said the numbers show a need for more training.

“If we’re spending that much on paying out claims, we need to spend a lot more money on training officers so that we don’t have these claims filed in the first place,” he said.

It is a tragedy what the government makes victims of law enforcement misconduct go through to collect damages, and many never win any money or get to trial, Rutherford said.

“Even though the number is $17 million, it probably should have been more,” he said. “There are some awful things going on that the government is able to squash because they make it so difficult to go after them.”

In fact, in most law enforcement claims closed last year, claimants received no money and funds paid out were for legal costs in defending the agencies.

Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, said lawsuits and insurance claims are a fact of life not just for law enforcement but for other professionals.

“I don’t know that we will ever get to the point where we don’t have lawsuits,” he said. “And inevitably, we always have some that are settled that probably shouldn’t be settled. But I don’t think that is an overarching statement against law enforcement. The same thing could be said of just about any practice, including medical malpractice. There’s always claims, always suits.”

According to the Insurance Reserve Fund records, from November 2013 to December 2014, the fund paid out $9.8 million in damages for law enforcement claims and another $7.7 million for legal costs to defend against such claims, according to the analysis done by The News.

Many were filed by inmates or those who spent time behind bars. The allegations range from rotten food to being sprayed with chemical munitions to inadequate medical care and a failure to protect. Forty-two of the claims allege cruel and unusual punishment.

Among the hundreds of closed claims overall, 72 are related to use of force, excessive force or brutality allegations; 85 allege false arrest; and 71 allege civil rights violations. Others allege negligent supervision, illegal search and seizure, due process violations and crimes.

Former Eutawville Police Chief Richard Combs was twice tried on murder charges related to allegations that Combs in 2011 shot to death a man whose daughter Combs gave a traffic ticket. A lawyer for Combs has said Combs feared he would be run over. After both trials resulted in hung juries, Combs pleaded guilty earlier this month to misconduct in office. A judge gave Combs a year of home detention, a 10-year suspended prison sentence and five years of probation.

The Insurance Reserve Fund last year paid a claim of $400,000 in damages and $52,748 in legal fees to defend the case.

Last year, former state Trooper Sean Groubert was charged with felony assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature related to allegations that he shot an unarmed motorist in Columbia stopped for a seat belt violation. He also was fired.

The state fund paid the motorist $285,000.

Barney Giese, a former prosecutor representing Groubert, said his client has pleaded not guilty and the case is still pending.

In February 2010, former Georgetown County Detention Center officer Belvin Lee Sherrill was arrested and charged with first-degree sexual conduct with an inmate, court records show, after two female inmates alleged they were sexually assaulted by an officer at the center.

Sherrill pleaded guilty in 2012, according to the records, and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, suspended to 18 months, with 30 months of probation.

The Insurance Reserve Fund last year paid $100,000 to one of the females, $50,000 to another and $124,998 to defend against the claims.

The claims can take years to resolve, many times involve litigation and are generally limited in state courts to $600,000 per claim, though most do not come close to that.

Of the hundreds of claims closed last year, just 34 cost the fund more than $100,000. Twenty four were closed without any payment. In 40 cases, the amount paid to defend the claims was greater than the damages paid.

Among the more costly claims was one related to an incident that occurred on Feb. 25, 2014, when a York County deputy stopped 70-year-old Bobby Canipe at night for driving his pickup with expired North Carolina tags.

Canipe, a truck driver, had exited his vehicle, then reached in the truck bed to get hiscane, which the deputy mistook for a weapon and fired multiple shots, hitting Canipe in the chest.

According to a dashcam video of the incident, the deputy, after realizing the mistake, begged God to forgive him and wept.

Canipe lived and was paid $150,000 for his claim, with another $1,906 paid for legal costs related to defending the claim. A spokesman for the sheriff’s department said a State Law Enforcement Division probe cleared the deputy and he remains with the department.

In March 2010, the Berkeley County’s detention center admitted Michael A. Wilson for an alleged probation violation.

According to a lawsuit, Wilson was an alcoholic and went through severe alcoholwithdrawal at the jail. Staff failed to properly examine Wilson, the suit alleged, failed to prescribe an adequate dose of a drug for alcohol withdrawal, did not have Wilson examined by a doctor, and when he went into seizures, three officers “climbed on top of Mr. Wilson’s back, cuffed his hands behind his back, shackled his legs and used excessive force against him by smothering Mr. Wilson and kneeing him in the back, buttocks and head.”

By the time Wilson was taken to the hospital, according to the suit, he suffered from severe brain injury with no hope of recovery. He was taken off life support a week later.

Wilson’s wife sued Berkeley County, the sheriff’s office, the sheriff at the time, the officers involved, and various medical personnel.

The case was moved to federal court and a settlement was reached in December 2013 with the county, the sheriff and officers, who agreed to pay $600,000, federal courtrecords show. A settlement of $250,000 was reached with medical personnel in March of this year, according to the court files.

Berkeley County Sheriff Duane Lewis said the case happened before he became sheriff this year and he knew nothing about it.

“I’m making a lot of changes all over the sheriff’s office and there’s a lot of people not here anymore that were working back then,” he said.

Another inmate at the detention center whose family alleged negligent care in connection with his death brought a lawsuit that ended with a verdict last year in federal court of almost $3 million, but it is being appealed, records show.

James Moore, one of the lawyers who represented Wilson’s wife and whose law firm focuses on civil rights issues, says he does not think enough positive changes have occurred at the state’s jails, detention centers and prisons.

“In fact, I’m hearing about more and more cases,” he said, “and I’m getting more calls about individuals who have been neglected and abused and have died from a lack of basic medical attention.”

He cited as an example cases where inmates died of asthma attacks because they did not have access to their inhalers.

Moore was among the lawyers in the case of Jerome Laudman, a mentally ill inmate at the state Department of Corrections who died in 2008 after spending 11 days naked in solitary confinement. By the time he was taken to a hospital, he was suffering from hypothermia.

A state judge cited Laudman’s death last year in a landmark decision finding the prison system had violated the constitutional rights of severely mentally ill prisoners.

The Insurance Reserve Fund paid $600,000 last year to Laudman’s family, part of a $1.2 million settlement, and almost $200,000 in legal fees to defend the case. Bryan Stirling, who became director of the state’s prison system in 2013, has asked for a SLED probe of the case, which has been forwarded to a solicitor.

The Insurance Reserve Fund paid several large claims last year concerning suicides in jails and prisons, including a 2010 suicide in a state prison cell resulting in payments of $550,000 for damages and $10,255 for legal costs; another 2010 suicide in a state cell that resulted in a $55,000 payment and legal fees of $55,056; a 2010 suicide of a Marion County inmate that resulted in loss claims totaling $525,000 plus $65,549 in legal costs; and a 2006 suicide of a Florence County inmate that resulted in a claim paid of $160,000 plus $132,236 in legal costs.

The agency has taken several steps in recent years to address suicide prevention and the larger issue of caring for mentally ill inmates, including the purchase of suicide smocks and tear-proof blankets, the training of 100 officers in crisis intervention, the creation of a self-injuries unit, moving to electronic medical records to better track the medications and appointments of mentally ill inmates and the hiring of additional mental health workers, Stirling said.

“It’s an evolving process and unfortunately is a problem with corrections across the country,” he said. “With a lot of mental health folks coming to corrections, it’s not going to go away any time soon, but we are taking steps to try and prevent it.”

Among the largest of civil rights claims last year was a payment of $599,900 plus legal costs of $390,036 after a lawsuit accused Berkeley County’s detention center of banning books and magazines other than the Bible. A lawyer representing the county said then that the jail actually banned publications with staples. But the ban was lifted as part of the settlement of the lawsuit.

The fund also last year paid $204,000 plus $287,696 in legalcosts over the arrests of Occupy Columbia protesters at the Statehouse in 2011 ordered by Gov. Nikki Haley. Federal judges found that the protesters’ First Amendment rights were violated.

Sen. Larry Martin, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he has no way of judging whether the $17.6 million in payments is high or low. He said it might be worthwhile for lawmakers to find out what other states pay, especially on a per-capita basis.

Dick Harpootlian, a former prosecutor who works as a Columbia trial lawyer, said he thinks with the spreading use of body cameras for officers, something that was mandated by lawmakers this year, law enforcement claims will grow.

“A lot of times you’ll have cases where the police officer says A and the victim or defendant says B and there’s no independent corroboration,” he said. “Now there will be a body camera. I think there will be more cases.”

Modifying police behavior, he said, will take more than body cameras. He said it will take training “that they’re not paramilitary, they are police officers.”

“We’re going to have to have a lot better training with intervention without violence,” he said. That should also be coupled with enough pay, he said, so officers are not forced to look for a second job, which may leave them weary and open to poor decision making.

Bruder, the director of the Sheriffs Association, said he has encouraged agencies to go through accreditation and adopt standards to reduce litigation and claims.

But he said only about 20 percent of sheriffs’ offices are accredited.

Some don’t do it because of the costs involved, he said. Sometimes it’s the preference of the governing body over the agency and sometimes it’s the sheriff’s preference, who may have a difference of opinion over a specific policy or standard.

Brown, the paralyzed man paid $700,000 from the Insurance Reserve Fund, died recently, according to his lawyer, Robert Ransom.

What happened during his arrest is disputed. The city argued that Brown, being chased by the officers, ran into one and fell to the ground and hid his hands under his body. Brown alleged that he voluntarily lay on the ground and blacked out after receiving a pain to his back.

Brown alleged the police officers were liable for failing to give proper information to EMS and the Medical University of South Carolina, according to federal court records, and he alleged “deliberate indifference” by two of the officers to Brown’s serious medical condition once he was transferred from MUSC to the detention facility.

Ransom said an internal investigation by the police department did not find any wrongdoing by the officers.

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