The mayor of Wagener on Thursday responded to recent news reports that suggest a town councilman's son received preferential treatment after being pulled over by Wagener police for speeding.
The incident happened on Saturday night, when Officer Dustin Johnson pulled over the son of Councilman George Smith in front of Wagener-Salley High School. A video of the traffic stop was captured by a small camera on Johnson's belt, and a copy of the video was provided to the Aiken Standard.
The driver apparently told the officer he had multiple South Carolina driver's licenses.
“I don't need to hear no more. That's against the law. As a matter of fact, in that case, you ain't getting this one back,” Johnson is heard saying. The driver tells him he had two lost at his home that had been reported lost to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Shortly after, Councilman Smith arrived on scene.
“How you doing, Mr. Smith?” Johnson said.
“I told him, what I did is I wrote him a warning. Anytime we stop somebody, we have to write a minimum of a warning,” he said.
Johnson told Smith he disabled the dashboard camera for the stop.
“I could see enough right off the bat with his eyes ... and between that and the smell, I didn't even bother to turn the recorder on,” he said.
The driver never completed any field sobriety tests, and Johnson didn't ask him to. In South Carolina, field sobriety tests, if requested by an officer who suspects an intoxicated driver, must be videotaped.
Johnson tells Smith he disabled the dashboard camera in his patrol car, and that he clocked his son traveling about 51 mph in a 30-mph zone.
Johnson returns to his patrol car to complete some paperwork, then approaches Smith and his son again.
“In my years of experience, and as a DUI specialist, you're not able to drive,” Johnson said. “Slow it down and let this be a learning lesson. If you wouldn't (have) been around this area, you'd have probably been looking at a whole lot worse situation.”
Mayor Michael Miller said favoritism was not shown for the son of a town councilman.
“We don't do that. We don't let people go because of who they are,” he said.
A recent news report on the incident quoted Miller as saying that Wagener police have dumped bags of marijuana and bottles of liquor out before and given people only warnings.
Miller told the Aiken Standard he was referring to an incident two years ago. A young woman and two male friends who were at the mud run were parked illegally at a gas station in Wagener. An officer addressing the illegal parking noticed a partially full bottle of wine in the vehicle.
“The way that was discovered, the officer walked by and saw the young lady sitting in the driver's seat,” Miller said. “She informed him she was the designated driver.”
The two men, who were intoxicated, came out of the gas station, and the officer ordered them to dump out the wine, Miller said. He gave the female driver a $138 parking ticket.
“That open container, that would have ruined her license and her finances for five years,” Miller said. “We don't dump bags of marijuana out, and we don't dump bottles of liquor out every time we catch somebody.”
The officer from Saturday's incident has been placed on paid administrative leave, and Miller said he contacted the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division to investigate.
“They told me it sounded political to them,” Miller said. “They talked to the chief for a while, and they said this is a political matter.”
Miller said Smith, who has served on the council for more than 30 years, didn't use his political power to get his son a lesser punishment and wouldn't have had a problem if his son got a ticket.
“He wasn't screaming or yelling,” he said. “And the warning ticket was written when he got there.”
Regarding Johnson's comment about what would happen in another jurisdiction, Miller said law enforcement's response to an incident is left to the discretion of the individual officer.
“That is possible. If another policeman had been on, it could have been different – a county policeman, a state policeman or (Department of Natural Resources).”
Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012. He is a native of Williston and majored in communication studies at Clemson University.