A Bluffton Police Department investigator has been reprimanded and put on probation after leading an operation that resulted in an improper arrest.
On Dec. 8, 2016, investigators from that department improperly arrested a man outside of their jurisdiction. The arrest was made in Sea Pines on Hilton Head Island — county jurisdiction — without properly coordinating with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. Sheriff’s departments are the agencies that should be serving these types of cross-jurisdictional warrants, experts say.
And experts agree that mistakes like this can be considered unlawful — they can open up police agencies to liability and can harm criminal cases against alleged offenders.
In this case, the fallout — in terms of prosecuting a criminal case — appears to have been minimized: The alleged offender, Thomas M. Bush, was arrested in another incident two weeks later, by the sheriff’s office, for allegedly assaulting a woman — the same woman he allegedly assaulted on Dec. 5, which resulted in the earlier arrest in Sea Pines.
But a review of the Bluffton Police arrest reveals confusion over state law and departmental procedures, and documents obtained through an open records request by The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette show this isn’t the first time the police department has failed to properly coordinate with the sheriff’s office when operating in the county’s jurisdiction.
A confounding arrest
Bush was taken into custody as he was painting a building in Sea Pines on Dec. 8.
Three days earlier, a woman reported to Bluffton police that he’d punched and choked her in a car, in the town’s jurisdiction. Investigators obtained a warrant for alleged second-degree domestic violence, had it countersigned by a magistrate — so it could be served (properly) outside city limits — and went to Sea Pines.
Bluffton police were already familiar with Bush, who had been arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder in a fatal shooting within their jurisdiction this past summer. Investigators were able to track him through his ankle monitor, which he wore as a condition of his September bond release in that case.
But, according to a sheriff’s office report, the county department knew nothing of Bluffton’s plans to come into its jurisdiction until about 15 minutes before the arrest. At that time, the team of investigators notified county dispatch it was in the area, and asked dispatch to notify the sheriff’s office and Sea Pines security. The team, led by Lt. Joe Babkiewicz, said it did not need assistance from the sheriff’s office, according to county dispatch transcripts.
The arrest was made without incident, but department spokesperson Joy Nelson acknowledged the error.
“We are aware that a mistake was made,” Nelson said. “We’re trying to figure out why and how a mistake was made — what procedures the investigators didn’t understand, and ensuring that they understand everything moving forward so that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
Babkiewicz has been placed on probation for 90 days, Nelson said. Future “issues of a similar nature could results in suspension, demotion or termination,” she said.
According to an internal memo written by Babkiewicz’s supervisor, Deputy Chief Joseph Manning, Babkiewicz “did not have a full understanding” of the state law he used to arrest Bush. Manning further noted that Babkiewicz should have had a deputy on scene before the arrest, and that the department’s warrant-service procedure would be amended.
Finally, he wrote, citing an earlier jurisdictional issue from this past summer, that Babkiewicz “failed to recall the conversation between Chief (Joey) Reynolds, me and him in reference to conducting operations outside of the town limits.”
In general — unless, per state law, an officer is in hot pursuit, witnesses a crime in progress or has knowledge one is about to be committed — an officer cannot arrest a suspect outside of his or her jurisdiction, according to Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former police officer.
And when seeking to serve a “cross-jurisdictional” warrant — as Bluffton officers were on that day — a city agency should inform the sheriff’s department of its warrant and the location of the suspect, Stoughton said. The sheriff’s office should review the warrant, and one of its deputies should make the arrest.
The warrant legalizes the arrest, he said, but the arrest itself must be performed correctly.
When this procedure isn’t followed, municipal officers making an arrest outside of jurisdiction can cause a number of problems, Stoughton said, including opening up themselves and their department to lawsuits, creating dangerous situations and potentially eroding the public’s trust through an overreach in power.
Other state law enforcement experts concur, though they would only speak in general about warrant serving and not about this particular case.
In general, when a municipal police department wants a countersigned warrant served in the county’s jurisdiction, the sheriff’s office has to serve it, according to Jarrod Bruder, executive director of the South Carolina Sheriffs’ Association.
If that doesn’t happen, the arrest can be considered unlawful, and on top of liability concerns it can also hinder the criminal case — sentences can be reduced, or a case might be thrown out altogether, for example.
Typically, lawful practice is for a municipal department to contact the sheriff’s office, and for those agencies to serve the warrant together, said Ryan Alphin, executive director of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Officers’ Association.
And best practices for warrant service of this type, Alphin said, are to have either a multi-jurisdictional warrant-service (or fugitive) task force — a group comprising officers from multiple agencies — or a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between a department and the sheriff’s office that specifies how the agencies will work together.
It’s happened before
Mistakes like this are rare, according to Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner.
Tanner did say, though, that the Bluffton police department made a similar mistake about five years ago when it improperly executed a search warrant out of its jurisdiction.
And, in a memo to Reynolds, Manning documented an “incident” from this past summer when the agency conducted a surveillance operation outside of the town. Tanner said members of both agencies met afterward and that there hadn’t been any recurrences.
Bush is currently confined at the Beaufort County Detention Center, according to that agency’s website. He has four pending cases — including one in which he’s charged with murder and attempted murder, and another in which he’s facing kidnapping and first-degree assault and battery — according to county court records.
Babkiewicz, whose law enforcement career began in 2002, and who began working in Bluffton in 2008, has several commendations over the course of his career, according to Nelson. He has not received any disciplinary actions during his time with the town.