Last month, I penned a column endorsing the South Carolina Commission on Prosecution Coordination (SCCPC)’s request to spend $10.4 million on a new, centralized prosecution data system for the Palmetto State. As I noted at the time, this new system would “create significant savings in solicitors’ offices across the state, improve prosecutorial accountability and enhance coordination between solicitors.”
Despite ballooning state spending by more than $1.5 billion in the proposed budget for fiscal year 2021-2022, lawmakers have not included this particular appropriation in their spending plans … which is further evidence of the extent to which they have absolutely no conception of what constitutes a core function of government (or how to fund these items adequately).
Seriously … members of the S.C. General Assembly will blow billions of dollars on non-essential inanity and atrociously unaccountable bureaucracies while they allow critical public safety and prosecutorial needs to languish.
But that is par for the course under “Republican” rule, sadly …
Anyway, one of the reasons I support this appropriation is I believe it is an opportunity not only to upgrade the state’s antiquated, discombobulated prosecutorial data system – but also to impose fresh transparency requirements on the system. Specifically, I believe the new data system should serve as an upgraded online database – one in which there are clear laws governing the collection, maintenance and preservation of court records.
I have written in the past about how powerful, politically connected South Carolinians are routinely able to get their divorce cases sealed (while the rest of us must watch helplessly as our dirty laundry is made available for public viewing). The wealthy and well-connected among us are also adept at making criminal charges magically disappear from the state’s public index – the current repository for past and present judicial actions.
Is this “justice?” No …
And as I have been taking a closer look at the state’s network of solicitors in recent weeks, I have become more convinced than ever that the current system must be reformed.
One good argument for the creation of a centralized, transparent system for case files? A developing situation in the S.C. thirteenth judicial circuit (which covers Greenville and Pickens counties in the Palmetto Upstate).
According to a motion (.pdf) filed on Monday, assistant solicitor Haley Kernell is pushing local magistrates at the Fairview Austin summary court to reinstate a pair of uniform traffic citations issued to a defendant who was charged with driving under the influence and driving with a suspended license in connection with a March 4, 2021 incident in Greenville county.
The defendant – Heidi Isabelle Hinsdale – was arrested on that date by an officer of the S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP). Hinsdale was previously convicted of driving under the influence on April 14, 2020 in connection with a separate incident – meaning this would have been her second offense.
Is Hinsdale’s case a big deal? No. Absolutely not. Driving under the influence cases are ubiquitous … and rarely make the news.
But the manner in which this case (and a group of others like it) was handled has become a huge deal.
According to Kernell’s motion, the charges against Hinsdale were dismissed on April 20, 2021 via a bench trial (i.e. a trial in which no jury is present and judgments are left exclusively to the presiding magistrate).
Why is that a problem?
Because Hinsdale’s attorney specifically requested a jury trial – which placed the case under the purview of the local solicitor’s office “for future jury trial docking and disposition.” Not only that, Hinsdale’s attorney – Lucas Marchant – notified the solicitor’s office of this request and served Kernell with standard discovery motions related to the case, according to exhibits contained in the motion.
After making this request, however, Marchant allegedly “prevailed upon the summary court jury trial coordinator to not transmit the defendant’s just trial request to the solicitor’s office (emphasis original).”
As a result, the solicitor’s office never received the case file from the court …
According to Kernell, after “several weeks … without receiving the transmittal from the summary court” solicitor’s staff went online and discovered a bench trial had already been held in Hinsdale’s case. And not only that, she had already been found “not guilty.”
How in the hell did that happen? Again, the solicitor’s office never received the formal jury trial request – and the accompanying case file – from the summary court.
Why did the court fail to provide this information in a timely manner? According to an April 21, 2021 email sent to Kernell from the court’s jury trial coordinator, Julie Bailey, she “never sent (the jury trial request) at Lucas Merchant’s (sic) request.”
Beyond shady, right?
Indeed. Also, such practices expressly violate South Carolina’s rules of criminal procedure, which require sign off from the solicitor’s office anytime a defendant waives their right to a jury trial.
Also worth considering? The so-called “bench trial” which ostensibly cleared Hinsdale of any culpability related to her latest driving under the influence charge took place without the presence of the arresting officer – meaning the case was decided without the benefit of a testifying state witness.
“His absence would not have permitted the court to conduct a ‘bench trial,'” Kernell wrote.
Yeah … super shady.
I do not wish to impugn the integrity of this particular summary court, but this situation is highly irregular. Not only that, the irregularity does not appear to be confined to the Hinsdale case.
According to Kernell’s motion, “five other DUI cases” involving the same court have been handled similarly.
“The state respectfully requests that those tickets be restored,” Kernell wrote in the motion.
I concur …
More importantly, I believe it is abundantly clear that an inquiry needs to be conducted into how this court conducts the people’s business. Because something is clearly not right.
Defendants in any civil, criminal or traffic case are absolutely entitled to due process. That is among the most elemental of our core constitutional rights. In fact, my news outlet likes to remind readers that those accused of committing crimes “are presumed innocent until proven guilty by our criminal justice system.” But victims have rights, too. And in the cases outlined above, there is a legitimate public safety factor to consider.
Bottom line? Justice must be fair and it must be transparent … neither of which appears to be happening in this particular Upstate court.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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