CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Hauled off to jail for a crime you didn’t commit? It has happened to dozens of people involving law enforcement across the Lowcountry.
While it doesn’t happen often, when police make a mistake, it costs millions in lawsuits and the innocent pay dearly with their reputations.
Just ask John Burnside, who was accused of rape and later cleared.
“It’s been expunged, no police record, yet I am tarnished for the rest of my life,” Burnside said.
It all started with a woman’s online ad.
“I talked to her for about three weeks, exchanged over 500 text messages between us for a sexual encounter,” he said. The two would eventually hook up. “She texted me and said she enjoyed the encounter,” he said, but he didn’t answer her.
Eight days later she claimed sexual assault.
“They had an arrest warrant six days before they ever talked to me,” he said.
Burnside was the victim according to attorney Mark Peper, who filed suit against the Charleston County Sheriff’s Office for false arrest. According to Peper, no investigation was done into whether the allegations were credible.
Burnside sat in the county jail for 17 days.
“I came to the realization while I was sitting in jail that I could spend 30 years in prison for something I didn’t do,” he said.
Sadly, that has happened. Last year, a man was paid $500,000 for an Horry County false arrest that sent him to state prison for four-and-a-half years.
The South Carolina Supreme Court ruled in that case and court documents indicate the officer lied, making false statements in the search warrant affidavit.
Officers need reliable information in order to make an arrest. It’s called probable cause.
Peper said the arrest isn’t legal if it’s mere suspicion.
“It’s happening more often than it should,” Peper said.
As a result, there are lawsuits and payouts. The South Carolina Insurance Reserve Fund paid Burnside $75,000 after he sued. Since the start of 2013, the insurance agency paid 18 Charleston County cases including Burnside’s, 21 for North Charleston, 14 for the City of Charleston, and nine for Berkeley County.
The tiny town of Allendale had 40, more than Charleston and North Charleston combined.
Law enforement experts say with the volume of arrests, the mistakes are few. Your safety is their concern.
“An officer has to make a split-second decision about situations that attorneys and defense attorneys and all have weeks and months and years to digest and second guess,” Berkeley County Sheriff Dwayne Lewis said.
It’s not just the officers involved here. A magistrate decides if there’s probable cause to issue the warrant and things often move quickly.
“Sometimes in the interest of public safety, an officer has to make a decision right then to protect someone’s life or property,” Lewis said.
That’s one reason State Attorney General Alan Wilson has joined a false arrest case before the United States Supreme Court, trying to protect officers from people who claim retaliation.
“That these law enforcement officers arrested me because I was angry in voicing my first amendment right to speech,” Wilson said. “You’re going to have so many officers stop making otherwise lawful arrests and people are gonna be hurt because of it.”
That would not protect law enforcement from shoddy work, which has lasting consequences.
“You go on a first date, this is something you have to tell somebody, you know when you go to an employer,” Burnside said. “This is something that is going haunt me for the rest of my life.”
Burnside takes responsibility for answering the woman’s ad in the first place. But Peper says the woman was not held accountable for “lying to authorities.”