A Glynn County, Ga., woman’s lawsuit accusing the Bluffton Police Department and one of its officers of wrongfully arresting and jailing her will now be heard in federal court.
The case — Chelsea Lynn Howard v. Bluffton Police Department and George Wetzel — was originally scheduled in the Beaufort County Court of Common Pleas, but will now be heard by the South Carolina District Court in Charleston.
Early last month, Otto Edworth Liipfert III, the lawyer for the department’, asked that the case be moved to federal court.
“I can’t comment on our strategy,” said Liipfert, of the firm Griffth, Freeman & Liipfert, LLC in Beaufort. He declined Thursday to further comment on the case.
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Howard’s lawyer, Grahame E. Holmes of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, P.A. in Walterboro, said the case is just getting going now that it’s in a new court.
The civil lawsuit was filed Jan. 30, 2018, three years after the traffic stop.
Howard alleges that during that 2015 traffic stop, Wetzel found a Ruger LCP .38 caliber pistol in her vehicle and claimed it was stolen.
The lawsuit says Howard “was in proper possession of the pistol and it was not stolen.”
In his police report on the incident, Wetzel wrote Howard was traveling at a “high rate of speed” on May River Road with no rear license plate illumination when he pulled her over.
Howard and her passenger were asked to step out of the car when another officer saw the handle of what looked like a handgun in a black and tan holster in the glove box as Howard looked for her registration and insurance documents.
Howard told the officers her father purchased the handgun at a store outside Atlanta, but that it belonged to her.
When the other officer checked the weapon’s serial number, it came back as a weapon stolen in New York, the report said.
Howard was arrested and charged with possession of a stolen pistol. She then spent the night in the Beaufort County Detention Center, the lawsuit said.
“(Wetzel and the Bluffton Police Department) were negligent, grossly negligent, malicious, reckless, wanton, and consciously and deliberately indifferent to (Howard) and (Howard’s) civil rights,” the suit alleges.
The suit accuses the department of failing to properly train and supervise its agents and employees and failing to properly investigate the charges against Howard. It also says the officer falsely accused Howard of committing a crime and arrested, imprisoned and restrained her without proper investigation or probable cause.
Wetzel is on military leave until August, Bluffton Police Department spokesperson Joy Nelson said Tuesday.