The S.C. Highway Patrol’s well-earned reputation as the protector of the political class came to a head in 1990, when Fred Verinder got stopped around midnight for driving under the influence and called the head of the patrol, who sped to the scene, got the DUI charge changed to speeding and drove Mr. Verinder home.
This might never have come to light but for the fact that Mr. Verinder was the agent in charge of the Columbia office of the FBI, which was in the midst of a corruption sting of the S.C. Legislature and also investigating possible kickbacks to the patrol’s parent agency, the S.C. highway department. Patrol Col. Red Lanier would later tell another state official they wouldn’t have to worry about Mr. Verinder’s FBI investigations any more.
When then-Gov. Carroll Campbell learned about the incident — and discovered that he was powerless to oust Col. Lanier — he launched his successful campaign to create a Cabinet system that allows governors to hire and fire many top state officials.
And we sort of assumed that a series of reforms had cleansed the Highway Patrol of its storied political favoritism.
Nearly 30 years later, another dropped DUI case suggests that it still pays to know the right people at the Highway Patrol. As Midlands Solicitor Rick Hubbard revealed this month, a Highway Patrol supervisor intervened in 2014 to save a major Clemson athletic donor from a DUI conviction — after being alerted to the situation by his supervisor.
It’s a pretty clear case of abuse of the public trust. The only question is precisely who the worst abuser was.
A South Carolina prosecutor won't bring charges against a Highway Patrol officer accused of helping a big donor to Clemson University avoid a DUI charge and a night in jail.
According to a legal memo prepared by Mr. Hubbard, a trooper arrested a major donor to Clemson’s IPTAY athletic program on DUI and open-container charges after the 2014 Clemson-USC football game. Before the donor could be booked, the trooper’s supervisor, Lt. Stacey Craven, showed up at the Pickens County jail, took the donor into his own custody and released him to his family. The donor, who refused to take a Breathalyzer test, was still charged with DUI, but that charge was dropped three years later at Lt. Craven’s direction.
Lt. Craven told SLED investigators the donor’s wife had called him and said her husband had a heart condition and might not make it through the night without his medicine; he said he then called the magistrate, who advised he could release the donor to family as long as he hadn’t been booked. But SLED found no such calls had been made. Instead, the donor’s nephew — a member of the IPTAY board of directors — had contacted Lt. Craven’s supervisor. Capt. Michael Warren then used his personal cell phone to contact Lt. Craven. All told, there were six calls that night between Capt. Warren and the nephew, and 11 between Capt. Warren and Lt. Craven.
Additionally, the magistrate said he never talked to Lt. Craven and never would have given such advice. And Mr. Hubbard noted that there were “unsubstantiated prior instances where Craven is alleged to have improperly intervened in DUI charges.”
After an Upstate solicitor handed off the case, Mr. Hubbard concluded this month that although the incident was extremely troubling, he didn’t believe he could win a conviction since now-Capt. Craven apparently didn’t benefit personally from the intervention. The solicitor’s decision not to bring charges appears to be legally and ethically sound.
Mr. Hubbard said the case would be turned over to the patrol’s current parent agency, the Department of Public Safety, to determine whether Capt. Craven’s “actions and lack of candor” violated any department policies. It seems to us that they would violate the agency’s mandate that troopers “instill public confidence by avoiding any appearance of ... preferential treatment.”
If it turns out that they didn’t, the department needs to explain why not. And how it intends to change those policies.
If the response to this incident is an all-clear all around, then the Public Safety Department needs to get to work on its campaign to convince the public that the patrol isn’t still the hotbed of favoritism that it used to be. And the Legislature needs to get to work on the changes to state law that will assist in that process.
As Mr. Hubbard explained in his memo, “the public’s trust in law enforcement is undermined when officers fail to faithfully and forthrightly uphold their duties.” And public trust in law enforcement is essential not only to law enforcement officials but to our entire society.