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S.C. Supreme Court rules ‘merely questioning’ police officers as they carry out duties is protected conduct

The Court ruled in favor of a man who was arrested in 2018 for standing in his yard, pointing a flashlight at deputies and asking them questions about an arrest in progress


The Supreme Court of the State of South Carolina.

Tracy Glantz/TNS

By John Monk
The State

COLUMBIA, S.C. — The S.C. Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the arrest and conviction of a man whose offense was that he — while standing on his own property — had asked police a few simple questions.

The man, Thomas Charles Felton Jones, was tackled, shocked with a Taser, handcuffed and arrested, the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion said.

“The facts in this case are appalling,” the justices said in an opinion written by Associate Justice John Cannon Few.

“While many circumstances may require law enforcement officers to secure a scene to carry out their duties or secure their safety, what happened to Jones has left us deeply disturbed,” the opinion said.

“As is clear from both the body camera footage and the record before us, Jones was doing nothing more than observing and asking questions of the officers. Both of these actions are constitutionally protected conduct, and as such, cannot support a conviction under this ordinance,” Few wrote.

Jones was tried, fined $500 and sentenced to 10 days in jail. He appealed, and the Supreme Court took up the case because of the constitutional issues involved.

Evidence from police body cam footage gave the justices an undisputed look at what happened.

“In July 2018, deputies Jake Lancaster and Jonathan Cooper of the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office pulled over a woman for failing to use a turn signal. The woman pulled her car to the side of the street in front of the home of the man she was driving to visit — Thomas Jones,” the opinion said.

“From the deputies’ body camera videos, it is apparent Jones walked from near his house to the side of the street to observe the stop. Standing at a distance with a flashlight pointing toward the officers, Jones observed the scene... and asked why Lancaster was calling for backup.

“Lancaster responded it was for safety in the event anyone else approached the scene. Jones next asked why his visitor was being pulled over, and Lancaster answered by stating it was because she had turned without using a turn signal and rolled through stop signs,” the opinion said.

Next, “Seemingly irritated by the questions, Lancaster then asked Jones, ‘Do you need anything, man?’ to which both Jones and his friend responded that she was visiting Jones for the night. The woman and Jones’s interactions with the deputies were calm and respectful. Jones then took a few steps backward, away from both deputies and the woman, still observing with his flashlight on.

“Lancaster then asked Jones, ‘Alright man, do you need to be here?’ Jones responded, ‘Yeah, this is my house.’ Lancaster responded — pointing toward the house — ’You can go back over there, or you can be arrested for interfering. Step back.’

“Jones did not move. Two seconds later, Lancaster said, ‘Alright, turn around,’ and began approaching Jones. Both deputies rushed toward Jones, tackled him, tased him, handcuffed him, and then arrested him. During the altercation, Jones lost consciousness.”

The county ordinance used to arrest Jones reads in part, “It shall be unlawful for any person ... to commit an assault, battery or by any act, physical or verbal, resist, hinder, impede or interfere with any law enforcement officer in the lawful discharge of his or her duty, or to aid or abet any such act.”

Justices said they were not going to overturn the county ordinance.

But, they underscored that “Jones stood on his own property merely questioning the deputies. When asked to step back from the location on his own property where he had been standing for the whole interaction, he refused. Seconds later, he was aggressively arrested after being tased. Under these facts, his conviction cannot stand.”

Greenville County Sheriff Hobart Lewis issued this statement: “While I will refrain from commenting on actions that took place prior to becoming Sheriff, under my leadership, deputies enforce and uphold the law in a manner that is just and properly applied. Anything outside of that is dealt with accordingly. While this case predates my tenure, I respect the Supreme Court’s decision.”

Lewis also said that Lancaster left the department in 2019; Cooper is still with the department.

Assistant public defenders on the case said they were not surprised at the Supreme Court’s decision. In a 1970 S.C. Supreme Court case, Town of Honea Path v. Flynn, the high court had overturned the conviction of a man arrested by the police chief because the chief didn’t like comments the man was making, they said.

Assistant public defenders who worked on the appeal included Andre Nguyen, Jacob Goldstein and Chris Shipman, who is now in private practice.

“To allow police officers, or other officers actively engaged in assigned duties, the discretion to arrest and prosecute those whom they feel have made inappropriate remarks upon a charge of interference would, we think, invite gross abuses of discretion and impose unfair penalties and burdens upon the citizenry,” the high court ruled in that case.

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