A woman shouldn’t have dodged a DUI charge just because her car crashed a few feet outside the jurisdiction of the Goose Creek police officer who detained her, South Carolina’s top judges said this week.
The S.C. Supreme Court ruling helps clarify the authority of law officers who find themselves responding to 911 calls beyond the reaches of the governments that employ them. In the Palmetto State — where many islands of unincorporated communities are surrounded by municipalities, blurring borderlines even for residents who live there — the decision sets a key precedent that officers can sometimes step over those lines and wield their authority.
"The factual scenario where officers are outside their jurisdiction is a common occurrence," Marc Gore, the S.C. Department of Public Safety attorney who argued the case, told The Post and Courier. "We needed the law to be clear on when their jurisdiction is there and when it's not there so we know how to proceed with cases like this."
The court overturned a magistrate’s dismissal of the drunken driving case and the lower appeals court’s approval of that outcome. The misdemeanor case had been pending for five years until Wednesday’s unanimous opinion, which sent it back to Berkeley County Magistrate Court for trial.
The woman's attorney, Henry Schlein of Summerville, said he had believed that the law restricted the officer's authority to detain his client.
"But I bow to the wisdom of the Supreme Court," he said.
'Not going to quit'
The case centers around Jennifer Lynn Alexander, whose car went off U.S. Highway 176 late one night in July 2013 and got stuck in a muddy ditch. Officer Chad Hadden of the Goose Creek Police Department responded to a 911 call about a vehicle idling with its lights on at the roadside. The policeman found Alexander behind the car with her pants around her ankles, making the officer fear that she had been assaulted.
Actually, court records said, she had been "relieving herself."
Hadden suspected that the woman was drunk, but he was unsure whether her car had ended up within the boundaries of Goose Creek. He radioed dispatchers to ask. The road was in city limits, but the ditch that contained the car was not; it was in unincorporated Berkeley County.
The officer told Alexander to turn off her car and stay put. She was not handcuffed. But attorneys and judges later agreed that Hadden’s order effectively detained Alexander for about 15 minutes.
But the officer needed a state trooper to do the investigation, to look for any evidence that Alexander was actually intoxicated.
Hadden and the suspect waited until S.C. Highway Patrol Trooper Paul Yacobozzi showed up. The trooper performed a sobriety test and arrested Alexander on a charge of driving under the influence.
The legal questions arose before the case reached trial. Alexander‘s attorneys asked Magistrate Edward Sessions to toss out the charge, arguing that the officer did not have the authority to detain Alexander, even if it were just for the purpose of waiting for a trooper to show up and do the investigation.
Sessions agreed and dismissed the case.
Attorneys for the Department of Public Safety, the Highway Patrol’s umbrella organization, appealed.
The department’s lawyers were not going to quit, considering South Carolina consistently ranks among the Top 5 states for DUI-related fatalities, Capt. Kelley Hughes, an agency spokesman, said Friday.
"These cases in the courtroom can have a ripple effect on future cases," Hughes said. "It’s important that we see these DUI cases through."
Gore, the department's general counsel, argued that a law allowing officers to respond to distress calls or requests for assistance in adjacent jurisdictions retain certain powers if they step outside their normal boundaries. Whether one of those powers is the authority to detain someone was a disputed question.
During oral arguments in Columbia in May, when the case was considered the court’s “case of the month,” Supreme Court Justice John Kittredge pondered the alternative outcomes.
“What should the officer have done?” he said. “Get back in his patrol car and tell dispatch, ‘It’s out of jurisdiction; I’m back in service,’ and just moseyed on?”
She could have wandered into traffic and been killed, Kittredge said, making Goose Creek liable for her death.
But, at the same time, the justice asked, “What ... good are jurisdictional boundaries” if the line isn’t drawn somewhere?
Justice John Few noted, though, that the officer didn’t gather any evidence as he waited for the trooper.
That doesn’t matter, Schlein contended. The state law allowing officers to handle distress calls in adjacent jurisdictions doesn’t cover the police in a case like this, he told the justices.
“It doesn't extend arrest powers,” he said. “We don’t want to start expanding the scope and letting the government arrogate to itself powers that the General Assembly never intended.”
But the court declared that when officers are called for help, they retain their authority even when the help ends up being needed in an adjacent jurisdiction. Cases that have been decided differently involved officers who were not responding to 911 calls, the justices explained.
“To be clear,” Kittredge wrote in the opinion with the four other justices, “jurisdictional boundaries mean something and ... an officer (usually) has no authority to act in his official capacity beyond his jurisdiction. However, (the law) provides a narrow exception to the general rule” when an officer is summoned for help.
“The officer has the authority to respond, assess the situation, and (if necessary) detain the subject.”