A recent court decision barring law enforcement officers from issuing citations for domestic violence they don't actually see is unlikely to change much in Beaufort County, authorities say.
State Attorney General Alan Wilson is asking the S.C. Supreme Court to reverse a ruling by the S.C. Court of Appeals that requires officers who do not witness the incidents to seek an arrest warrant from a magistrate.
The June 6 ruling is unlikely to change how the crimes are handled in Beaufort County, where Sheriff P.J. Tanner said his deputies typically obtain arrest warrants and rarely, if ever, use citations to charge suspected offenders with criminal domestic violence.
Some opponents of the appeals court decision say requiring an officer to go before a magistrate, testify that a victim told him about an incident of domestic violence -- and then have a magistrate issue an arrest warrant -- cuts into officers' limited time and may reduce the number of domestic abuse charges brought.
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In some counties, they add, it is difficult to find a magistrate late at night, when offenses often occur.
"The prosecution of criminal-domestic violence cases will be severely hampered by this decision," Wilson said in a legal memo asking the Supreme Court to hear the case as soon as possible. "Until this Court finally decides the issue in this case, law enforcement personnel, prosecutors and judges all over the state will be in a quandary regarding the proper way to proceed with pending criminal domestic violence and other types of case where in a uniform traffic ticket was issued for a freshly-committed offense."
Fourteenth Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said the ruling will not affect the prosecution of pending or future cases in Beaufort County or elsewhere in the five-county circuit. That's because a 2006 law allows judicial circuits of five or more counties to prosecute misdemeanor domestic-violence cases in General Sessions Court instead of magistrate courts.
The 14th Circuit -- which also includes Jasper, Hampton, Colleton and Allendale counties -- is the state's only circuit that meets that definition.
Because all those accused of criminal domestic violence in the 14th Circuit are indicted by a county grand jury, Stone said, it will not matter whether they were issued a ticket or arrested with a warrant.
"That grand jury indictment will supersede any previous paperwork filed in the case," Stone said. "We wanted this law passed to send a message to those charged with CDV that we are not hearing your case in the same courtroom as speeding tickets. That the law also seems to insulate us from this ruling is an added bonus."
Law enforcement officers don't typically witness domestic violence, Wilson has said, but they often do arrive at the scene of a disturbance and see immediate evidence of an assault -- a woman screaming or damage to the house.
The law clearly allows for tickets to be issued in such situations, because officers are allowed to draw an inference from evidence they observe, according to Wilson.
Tanner, whose deputies don't typically issue tickets for domestic violence, says he sees some merit in the court's decision.
"We'll usually go ahead and get the warrant," Tanner said. "I agree with the Court of Appeals ruling. There is a list of offenses for which a uniform traffic citation may be issued, and criminal domestic violence is not on that list. The decision isn't going to affect how we enforce the state's criminal domestic violence law in Beaufort County."
"I think the court just wants more information and wants to see the affidavit where the officer lists the probable cause for the arrest," Tanner added.
The ruling was handed down in a case from 2006 in which a York County man was issued a uniform traffic citation for a first offense of domestic violence after his estranged wife called officers to the house.
His attorney said the appeals court decision was correct because state law is clear that officers can't use a traffic ticket to cite someone for alleged domestic violence they don't witness.
Police did not observe the man commit an illegal act, he said.
Reporter John Monk from The (Columbia) State contributed to this article.
Follow reporter Patrick Donohue at twitter.com/ProtectServeBft.