Federal Tort Claims Lawsuit Against Horry County Moves Forward – Part II
By Paul Gable
A federal tort claims lawsuit, with Horry County and former Horry County Police Department Chief Johnny Morgan included as defendants, is moving forward in Florence federal district court as discovery and depositions are scheduled later this month.
The suit stems from allegations of fraud on the court under color of law by HCPD officers, SLED agents and FBI agents, among others. The suit alleges personnel of these agencies conspired to withhold evidence, commit perjury and commit other unlawful acts in order to influence the outcome of a previous federal lawsuit, thereby violating the civil rights of the plaintiffs.
This is Part II of a series on how and why the county and its police department are now involved in defending a claim against them in excess of $100 million.
Police videotapes of the August 2000 stop and arrest of James Spencer were critical evidence in the original Southern Holdings lawsuit. Videotapes of arrests are made by law enforcement to act as evidence when the charges are heard in court.
In this case, the charges were dropped and the videotapes became, instead, evidence of false arrest and other illegal police tactics during the original incident. They were potentially devastating for Horry County.
The following attached documents relate to the videotapes and the games that were played to keep them out of the hands of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
Document 310-b is a subpoena for the original videotapes. It was sent to the Horry County Police Department just days after Spencer was arrested in August 2000. HCPD responded that SLED had the tapes and they had no copies. This is an astounding answer because the tapes, at that time, were evidence for a supposed felony arrest.
By May 2001, the felony charges against Spencer had been dismissed by a circuit court judge and Spencer and the other plaintiffs had filed a lawsuit against Horry County and other defendants.
Document 310-q is an internal Horry County letter of May 2001 from PIO Lisa Hammersley to Solicitor Greg Hembree. In it Hammersley makes Hembree aware that Spencer and other plaintiffs have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for the tapes and associated documentation.
Why Hembree or someone in his office are even involved with evidence is mysterious because there are no longer outstanding criminal charges. The tapes are now evidence in a lawsuit, evidence that will help the plaintiffs not the defendants.
Hammersley reiterates she was told by HCPD and Sheriff’s office that the original tapes were picked up by SLED months ago.
Document 310-r is a May 2001 letter from then Horry County Attorney John Weaver to Spencer forbidding Spencer from contacting the Horry County Public Information Office for any reason including FOIA requests. Think we’re hiding something here?
Evidently Weaver appointed himself the czar of FOIA requests stating he will determine what, if any, and when documents will be provided to the plaintiffs with respect to their FOIA’s.
Additionally, Weaver demands $750.00 in advance from each plaintiff seeking documents, a request that certainly appears to be a violation of the law and intent of the S.C. Freedom of Information Act.
Document 310-s is an April 2004 letter from SLED agent Mike Prodan to plaintiff Irene Santacroce again stating SLED does not and never did have possession of the original videotapes. Where were they all this time?
The plaintiffs, after four years of attempts, were never provided with the original videotapes so their tape expert could examine them and so they could be used as evidence in the lawsuit.
HCPD said SLED had the videotapes. SLED said it never had them. HCPD was put on notice only days after the bogus arrest of Spencer that the original videotapes were sought as evidence. It appears HCPD never intended to produce the tapes or abide by the subpoenas and, later, court orders to do so.
The videotapes certainly would have hurt Horry County’s defense. Instead of honoring subpoenas and court orders, HCPD and other county officials played a game of virtual musical chairs with them.
HCPD’s attitude can only be described as we are the law, so we don’t have to obey the law. Such is the basis for the current Federal Tort Claims lawsuit.