Highway patrolman indicted

This frame from a dashboard camera, released by the South Carolina Highway Patrol, shows the suspect running from Trooper Steve Garren's patrol car on June 24, 2007.

COLUMBIA — A state trooper who hit a fleeing suspect with his car has been indicted by a federal grand jury on a civil rights violation charge in what may be the first of several cases against highway patrolmen.

Trooper Steve C. Garren, 39, of Greenwood, could face up to a $250,000 fine and 10 years in prison for striking a man with his cruiser and later telling other officers, "I nailed the f--- out of him. ... I was trying to hit him."

The 2007 incident, caught on Garren's dashboard video, was dismissed as "locker-room talk" by a solicitor who declined to charge the trooper. The grand jury saw things differently, and members of the Legislative Black Caucus, who pushed for an investigation of the Highway Patrol, applauded that decision.

"To me, it was attempted murder," said state Rep. Leon Howard, D-Columbia, chairman of the caucus. "These guys are nothing more than criminals with badges."

Garren's case is one of more than a dozen controversial trooper stops publicized by The Post and Courier earlier this year after the newspaper obtained copies of the tapes through the Freedom of Information Act.

In one video, a trooper uses his cruiser to chase a suspect on foot through an apartment complex; in another, a trooper tells a suspect, "You better run, (n-word), I'm fixin' to kill you."

When those tapes became public, Gov. Mark Sanford forced out former Department of Public Safety Director Jim Schweitzer and Highway Patrol Col. Russell Roark.

Maj. Mark Keel, the new Public Safety director, on Tuesday suspended Garren without pay.

"It ought to be sending a message to the Highway Patrol," he said. "This type of behavior will not tolerated."

The incident in question happened June 24, 2007, when a man involved in a high-speed chase near Greenwood parked his car on the side of a residential street and took off running.

As he ran across the road, Garren's cruiser clipped the man, sending him flipping into the air.

Garren was given a three-day suspension for the incident, but is appealing that decision.

Eighth Circuit Solicitor Jerry Peace reviewed the case in August, and told The Post and Courier last month that his decision not to charge Garren with a crime was a "no-brainer." There was, he said, no proof of intent.

"All you have to do is look at the tape and see that the guy ran in front of the patrol car," Peace said.

The indictment contends that Garren deprived Marvin Grant of his constitutional right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a law enforcement officer.

"Allegations of law enforcement abuse are serious, and must be considered carefully," U.S. Attorney W. Walter Wilkins said. "I am confident the grand jury has done just that."

First Assistant U.S. Attorney Kevin McDonald confirmed that the Justice Department is looking at other trooper incidents and that additional figures are expected to be pursued.

Garren is not in custody.

He is expected to turn himself in for an arraign- ment in Greenville later this month.

"It's unfortunate, but it needed to happen," said Lonnie Randolph, president of the state NAACP.

Schuyler Kropf, Glenn Smith and Brian Hicks contributed to this report. Reach Yvonne Wenger at 803-799-9051 or ywenger@postandcourier.com.