A 7 News investigation uncovered a multi-million dollar trend involving Upstate police and civil court settlements.
Every year, Upstate police agencies spend millions of tax dollars to settle lawsuits stemming from police shootings that state prosecutors ruled “justified”.
Many of the largest settlements involved an officer who opened fire after he said a car was about to run them over, forcing the police to fire in self-defense.
In each case state investigators reviewed the shooting, prosecutors evaluated the evidence and the officers eventually returned to work. In each case, taxpayers shelled out 6 and 7 figure settlement payments to the person shot or to their next-of-kin. In every case police maintained they did nothing wrong but they always wrote a check.
In July 2015 a Seneca police officer named Mark Tiller shot and killed 19-year-old Zach Hammond. Tiller said he opened fire because he feared for his live when Hammond’s car moved toward him. The prosecutor declined to charge Tiller and ruled the shooting justified.
In South Carolina’s criminal courts that would be the end of the story.
For Hammond’s family it was only the beginning.
“Someone has to experience some kind of pain to bring about change,” said Zach Hammond’s mother, Angie.
In last September, three months after the shooting, the Hammond family filed a civil lawsuit in federal court. The complaint accused Officer Tiller, the Seneca Police, and Chief John Covington of violating Hammond’s civil rights.
In April 2016, without admitting any wrongdoing, the city agreed to pay the Hammond family more than two million dollars to settle the case.
“I didn’t want the money. I could care less about the money. I wanted to hold somebody accountable,” said Angie Hammond.
The Hammond case is one of several repeating a similar cycle of events each year.
In 2012, Woodruff police shot and killed a pregnant woman named Lacey Lamb. The officer said Lamb tried to run him down. The state ruled the shooting justified but paid $700,000 to settle the civil claim.
The next year, 2013, Anderson Police shot an accused shoplifter named Sharon McDowell. Two officers said the fired in self-defense after McDowell’s car lurched toward them.
Once again, the solicitor said the shooting was justified and once again taxpayers shelled out six figures to the estate of the person shot.
In 2014, a Duncan officer shot a woman at the wheel of a stolen police cruiser when he said the driver came at him in reverse.
That driver, Rebecca Oliver, died. The officer returned to work. Taxpayers paid $700,000 to settle a civil case with Oliver’s family.
Across the Upstate cities and counties face dozens of civil lawsuits every year. The biggest settlements are related to law enforcement actions.
Part of the disparity between a lack of criminal prosecution and civil settlements comes from the difference between those two kinds of cases. There is a different standard of proof.
In criminal court, a prosecutor would have to show a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Many prosecutors won’t bring a case to trial until they’re confident they have enough evidence to attain that standard.
In a civil case, a plaintiff can win damages if the jury believes their claim is supported by most of the evidence. In other words, a defendant can lose a case if they are 51% liable.
Because the standard is lower and because juries can be unpredictable, there is always some incentive to settle most cases.
One case that illustrates the difference happened in Anderson County in 2013.
Two Anderson County deputies shot a man named Ricky Clark after a high-speed chase that went off the road and into the woods. The deputies said they fired in self-defense after Clark came at them in reverse.
A state investigation revealed one of the deputies involved failed a lie detector test about the events that day and the prosecutor called that deputies actions “concerning”. Still, all charges against Clark were dismissed and none were filed against the deputies.
The county later settled a civil case and paid Clark a six-figure settlement.
“Police officers should get the benefit of immunity. In other words, they should get the benefit of the doubt,” said attorney John Reckenbeil, who has filed civil suits against government bodies in the past.
Reckenbeil said police officers are entitled to “qualified immunity”.
It means officers can’t be held liable for simply doing their job. The plaintiff has to show the officer violated someone’s civil rights. In other words, they had to know it was wrong to shoot someone before they opened fire.
Angie Hammond said she only filed her civil case because she felt officer Tiller should have known not to shoot.
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