The sheriff of Jasper county, South Carolina – who is running for re-election in the Democratic primary next week – had a “significant credibility problem” during his service as a police officer, according to a 2013 court ruling.
The order, issued by former S.C. circuit court judge Michael Baxley, found that Jasper county sheriff Chris Malphrus failed to follow the law in three separate incidents involving two black men and two hispanic men who were stopped without reason on Interstate 95 and unconstitutionally searched.
At the time of these arrests, Malphrus was a lance corporal with the Ridgeland, S.C. police department, where he worked as an ICE team member — which he described as “an aggressive traffic unit.”
Attorneys for the four defendants in this compounded criminal case argued 1) their clients’ arrests were a result of racial profiling 2) Malphrus lacked probable cause to stop them, and 3) they were unreasonably searched.
Why is FITSNews writing about this now?
We believe the voters of Jasper county deserve to know about this 28-page court order as the allegations and the facts presented in it could impact sheriff’s office operations today. As the country engages a national discussion on police reform, we believe this story is important right now in a climate where law enforcement officers and those in power in our justice system must be held accountable.
Also, this story was never previously covered by any local media.
After extensively reviewing video footage, police reports, and other evidence from all three traffic stops conducted by Malphrus on Interstate 95, Judge Baxley made the following conclusions:
- In all three cases, Malphrus lacked evidence to justify the initial traffic stops.
- Malphrus’ written reports significantly differed from video evidence in two of the stops.
- Malphrus did not have enough evidence to initiate a criminal investigation and drug search during each of the three stops.
- Malphrus violated defendants’ fourth amendment rights to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures.
In the scathing summary, Baxley wrote that these three cases revealed a dangerous pattern.
“The court is concerned that the cases consolidated for this decision expose a pattern of Fourth Amendment violation that calls out for systemic remedy,” the judge wrote.
The court ultimately found that Malphrus was the central witness for all three cases in determining probable cause – which in and of itself is a huge problem.
“At the outset, the court finds that the arresting officer (Malphrus) in these cases has a significant credibility problem,” the ruling said.
The court reviewed the police reports in all three cases – as well as others written by Malphrus – and found an alarming system of behavior.
“It is clear that the incident reports are prepared with the use of a pre-written computer template that already includes certain facts of the stop and specific references to probable cause from the stop,” the summary said.
After reviewing all three cases, Malphrus’ written accounts in police reports significantly deviated from video evidence, the court found.
It appeared Malphrus was not aware of what constituted grounds for initiating a criminal investigation following a traffic stop. For example, in one of the traffic stops, Malphrus presented the following information as facts sufficient to launch a criminal investigation:
- The vehicle was from Florida.
- There was a smell of air fresheners in the vehicle.
- Candy and food wrappers were in the console (he said this is evidence of “travel without stop”, a possible indicator of drug activity).
- There were four cell phones in the vehicle.
- The driver was nervous.
The court found that the “facts,” even when considered together, were not enough to launch a drug investigation.
During each of the stops, Malphrus ultimately found drugs in all three of the vehicles.
- In the first case, Malphrus allegedly found 21,000 Oxycodone pills inside a suitcase in the trunk.
- In the second case, Malphrus found 22,000 Ecstasy pills more than an hour after he initiated the traffic stop.
- In the third case, Malphrus found 5,031 Oxycodone pills an hour after he initiated the traffic stop.
However, that evidence was dismissed and the cases against the defendants were dropped after the court summary was issued.
In all three cases, the defendants were arrested and charged with drug trafficking. However, the court found that the drug evidence obtained during the search must be thrown out for trial. The charges against at least two of the defendants were ultimately dropped, according to online court records.
“The large amount of narcotics seized in these cases has not escaped the attention of the court, and this decision should not be interpreted as condoning the alleged illegal possession and transport of scheduled narcotics,” the opinion said. “The court clearly recognizes there is danger to society in the illicit drug trade, however, the ends achieved here by law enforcement cannot justify the means by which that end was reached.”
Judge Baxley continued, “the Supreme Court made the national policy decision that the abuse of unfettered police authority represents an even greater danger than the contraband.”
All four non-white defendants in the case argued that they were racially profiled, which is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause of The United States.
However, in South Carolina, it is fairly difficult to prove racial profiling. First, defendants must show they were singled out for prosecution while others were not prosecuted for similar conduct.
The defendant must then prove that they were singled out based on an impermissible ground such as race, the opinion said.
The court denied these claims of racial profiling.
“While it is true that all defendants are either Hispanic or African American, that fact alone does not establish an equal protection violation,” the court ruled. “The video and audio evidence do not show a patent discriminatory purpose.”
Malphrus is running for reelection against Donald Hipp, a former major at the Jasper County sheriff’s office and an investigator with the S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor’s office.
The Democratic primary is scheduled for Tuesday, June 9, 2020.
Hipp previously ran against Malprhus in the 2016 general election, when he lost by a 12 percentage point margin, according to The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet.
Tucked away in South Carolina’s Lowcountry next to the Georgia border, Jasper county has seen a population boom in recent years. In fact, its population nearly doubled between 1990 and 2018.
Jasper County is increasingly diverse with more than 55 percent of its population listed as either black or Hispanic.
‘He is incapable of being honest’
In January of this year, this news outlet exclusively reported that an apparent ex-girlfriend of Malphrus posted on Facebook alleging misconduct, abuse of power and cheating.
Angela Cleland questioned the sheriff’s ethics in the Facebook post, which was sent to this news outlet from a tipster.
“Wow, it sure is amazing that someone can claim to be such a good leader, the sheriff of our county nonetheless yet he is incapable of being honest, or faithful to ONE WOMAN,” Cleland wrote.
Cleland later walked her statement back.
“I’d like to publicly apologize for my weak moment earlier,” she wrote. “It seems as though a lot of people are having quite the hay day with it, sad but true. I made a very rash decision when I was in an extremely hurt position. I made the wrong choice and I can never take it back.”
Malphrus joins a long line of South Carolina sheriffs who have faced/ are facing allegations of misconduct and scandals. In the last four years, this news outlet has extensively reported on the misdeeds of sheriffs in Chester, Chesterfield, Colleton, Florence, Greenville and Laurens counties.
This news outlet also recently called for tougher punishments for misbehaving leaders.
Cleland is not the first person to publicly question Malphrus’ ethics. The first-time sheriff faces a slew of lawsuits since taking office in 2017.
Malphrus is the only named defendant in an August 2019 lawsuit that accused his office of false imprisonment; malicious prosecution; slander and libel; assault and battery; wrongful failure to train and supervise; and common law liability for negligence, gross negligence and recklessness.
The claims stem from the 2018 Jasper County arrest of a black man who was pulled over without probable cause, then charged and arrested, according to the lawsuit.
Malphrus was also named in a June 2019 lawsuit that accuses his officers of charging and arresting three residents with public disorderly conduct while they were attending a cookout located on private property.
According to the lawsuit, several heavily armed Jasper County deputies swarmed the heirs property without search or arrest warrants on June 16, 2017. Then the deputies aggressively displayed “military grade weapons,” deployed their attack dogs, and started “making random arrests.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to [email protected].