Crime & Courts

Exclusive: 7 law officers drove with suspended licenses

THE STATE

Seven Department of Public Safety law enforcement officers have been suspended without pay for working while their driver’s licenses were suspended, agency director Mark Keel said Tuesday.

DPS launched an investigation into suspended licenses after The State newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request April 3 for driving records for Senior Trooper John D. McGaha and reported McGaha’s license had been suspended several months earlier.

McGaha was suspended and three other state troopers, two State Transport Police officers and a Bureau of Protective Services officer, were suspended less than a week later.

Three others who had been suspended for the same reason — two troopers and one State Transport Police officer — have been reinstated after a preliminary investigation, Keel said.

In each case, an officer’s license was suspended for failing to pay property taxes or for operating a vehicle without insurance, Keel said.

Cases officers made while their licenses were suspended could be jeopardized, he said.

“It’s probably one of the greatest concerns that I have,” Keel said. “Cases could be dismissed. I’ll be talking to the solicitors in the jurisdictions that are affected.”

The seven officers will remain on suspension pending the outcome of internal investigations, which could take 30 days, Keel said.

Punishment for an officer could range from a letter of reprimand to being fired.

“During my 30 years in law enforcement, I can’t say I’ve ever had to address anything like this,” Keel said. “It’s a serious matter, and I’m not gonna tolerate it.”

The license checks could go beyond the DPS. Keel said he is telling the state’s police chiefs and sheriffs this is something “we need to check.”

The suspensions came after DPS assigned nine of its employees to do internal Department of Motor Vehicles record checks April 7 on more than 1,000 officers working for the S.C. Highway Patrol, State Transport Police and Bureau of Protective Services.

It is against the law and against agency policy to drive with a suspended license.

Investigators found officers worked with suspended licenses for lengths of time ranging from four days to three months.

The earliest case was in 2002, and the most recent continued into this year. None was working while under suspension at the time of the check, said Keel, who was sworn in last June.

“From my understanding, probably the majority occurred before I was here,” he said.

While Keel said he will not tolerate officers working while under suspension, they are dealing with some of the same economic struggles others are.

“In this economy we’re living in, some people have a problem paying their bills,” Keel said.

None of the suspended officers came forward after McGaha’s case was publicized.

Keel would not release the suspended officers’ names, saying “it would prejudice and bias the officer until we know all the facts.”

Of the three officers reinstated, Keel said they shouldn’t have been suspended.

For example, one officer wrecked his pickup truck, the insurance company paid him for it and took the title to the truck, sold it in North Carolina, then he received a motor vehicle tax bill, DPS spokesman Sid Gaulden said.

The officer threw the bill out because he didn’t own the vehicle, Gaulden said.

For those found at fault, punishment will be consistent, Keel said.

Keel, Patrol Col. Kenny Lancaster, and other top officials spent part of Tuesday in Chester County, talking to about 70 troopers about moving on from the agency’s disciplinary issues. Keel said he is talking with every trooper in the state about the agency’s “discipline problem.”

Lancaster replaces Col. Russell Roark, whom Gov. Mark Sanford ousted last February along with Keel’s predecessor, James Schweitzer.

Sanford said Schweitzer and Roark, who are white, should have fired a white trooper who used a racial slur and threatened to kill a fleeing black suspect during a 2004 Greenwood County traffic stop.

Three other troopers since have been charged with federal use-of-excessive-force violations.

One was acquitted; another pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing; and a third was charged, but was allowed to apply to a pre-trial diversion program that would clear him of his charge.

On March 28, Senior Trooper McGaha, of Horry County, was stopped by a fellow trooper on I-20 in Kershaw County, cited for traveling 131 miles per hour in a 70-mph zone, then put on suspension for three days.

Acting on a tip, The State checked his DMV records to find his license previously had been suspended for more than 2½ months.

Keel said he checked McGaha’s 10-year driving record before talking to The State for a story, but the suspension didn’t show up on the record.

That’s because McGaha’s license had been reinstated after he was late paying property taxes on a vehicle, Keel said. If the offense had been a moving violation, it would have been on the record, Keel said.

Driver’s license checks are conducted annually on people driving state vehicles. But Keel said he wasn’t aware of this glitch. DPS’s investigation had to go further, and look at internal DMV records, to find the suspensions.

The DMV is working on computer programs that periodically would notify the Department of Public Safety when there is activity on an employee’s driver’s license.

For instance, if an employee received a speeding ticket, it would generate an electronic or paper report to go to DPS, DMV chief of staff Jimmy Earley said. DPS will be a pilot program.

“Hopefully, we can hammer out a process where any activity on those driving licenses we can report back to DPS,” Earley said. “It may be something that other agencies could use in the future.”

Reach Higgins at (803) 771-8570.

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