OR ARE THEY?
Still, when it comes to the drama surrounding Berkeley County, S.C. sheriff Wayne DeWitt – the cop who got drunk, smashed his government-owned vehicle into another car and led police on a 100-mile-per-hour chase – Haley’s hands are tied (and not in the fun way).
Don’t get us wrong: There’s no way DeWitt should keep his job after his drunken joy ride. He recklessly endangered the lives of the very people he is charged with protecting – and for that, he deserves to not only lose his job but also spend some time behind bars.
Here’s the thing, though: Haley is only allowed to remove local elected officials from office in the event they are indicted on a crime of moral turpitude.
What’s “moral turpitude?” According to South Carolina’s judicial system, it is defined as “an act of baseness, vileness, or depravity in the private and social duties which a man owes to his fellow man, or to society in general, contrary to the accepted and customary rule of right and duty between man and man.”
And yes, that definition – part of a 1978 court case – strikes us as highly subjective. Purposely vague, even.
Previous governors have defined moral turpitude along fairly consistent lines. In fact Haley’s chief legal counsel Swati Patel – the one who made the decision not to suspend DeWitt – has previously defined the term as an indictment brought on a criminal charge (i.e. something bigger than a “driving under the influence” arrest).
She’s applied that standard while working for Haley, and she applied it while serving in the same role with former Gov. Mark Sanford.
DeWitt’s critics argue his crime is bigger – pointing to the fact he not only fled the scene of his alcohol-related accident, but also attempted to evade police officers in a high-speed chase.
“If that’s not moral turpitude I don’t know what is,” one Berkeley County law enforcement officer told FITS. “Nikki needs to take this guy out.”
We agree … but DeWitt was inexplicably given a pass on the “failure to stop for blue lights” charge, and beyond that the inherent vagueness of the “moral turpitude” standard has left Haley in the unenviable position of potentially setting a very bad precedent.
What do we mean by that?
Well, obviously we don’t want an environment in which governors can arbitrarily remove local elected officials. Lord knows there is enough state meddling in these offices as it is – and given how easy it is to get arrested these days, we’d hate to see a trumped-up arrest lead to an improper suspension.
Of course DeWitt’s situation isn’t “trumped-up.” It’s clear he recklessly endangered his fellow citizens – and it’s also clear his reckless endangerment took place as part of his effort to evade the consequences of his actions. Which means Haley would be forgiven for exercising circumstantial discernment and suspending him from office.
But should she?
Absent specific statutory authority, Haley’s removal of DeWitt could create a bad precedent – conceivably opening the door to future abuse. Bottom line? South Carolina’s definition of “moral turpitude” needs to be much more clearly defined so as to delineate which crimes warrant a suspension from office (and removal from office upon pleading or conviction) – and which crimes don’t.
In fact we would urge the S.C. General Assembly to categorically define this term during the upcoming legislative session – so future governors aren’t put in similar situations. In the meantime, we would encourage the citizens and leaders of Berkeley County to take whatever actions they deem necessary in the event DeWitt refuses to step down.