Small Talk with Big Consequences: The Supreme Court of South Carolina Reverses a Greenville Man’s Conviction Based on Asking Questions

“The facts of this case are appalling and tempt us to eschew restraint.”
— Justice Few

 

Two Greenville County deputies tased, tackled, and arrested Thomas Jones because he asked two questions. In July 2018, Jones’ friend had been pulled over in front of his home due to failing to use a turn signal. Jones, concerned about his friend, with just a flashlight in his hand, walked into his front yard and observed what was occurring. He asked why his friend was pulled over and why the deputy had called for backup for seemingly no reason. The deputy, annoyed with Jones’ questions, asked Jones “Do you need anything man?” and “Alright man, do you need to be here?” Jones, while standing in his own front yard, responded to both in a calm and respectful manner, stating that the woman pulled over was visiting him and that this was his house. 

Jones was told he needed to go back to his house, or he could be arrested for interfering. When Jones, asking no additional questions of the deputies, did not move for a few seconds, the deputy told him to turn around. Both deputies then rushed towards Jones and tackled, tased, handcuffed, and arrested him. Jones lost consciousness during the encounter. Notably, only three minutes elapsed from Jones appearing on body camera footage to his arrest.

Eventually, Jones was convicted of interfering with a county law enforcement officer under Greenville County Ordinance § 15-10(b). He was sentenced to thirty days in jail and a $1,000 fine, which was suspended upon ten days in jail over weekends and a $500 fine. Jones appealed and raised constitutional challenges to the validity of the ordinance. 

The Greenville County Ordinance (§15-10(b) under which Jones was convicted states:
It shall be unlawful for any person within the unincorporated area of the county to commit an assault, battery or by any act, physical or verbal, resist, hinder, impeded or interfere with any law enforcement officer in the lawful discharge of his or her duty, or to aid or abet any such act.

In State v. Thomas C.F. Jones, Jones argued that the ordinance was both unconstitutionally overboard and void for vagueness and was preempted by state law. In the alternative, Jones argued that the ordinance was unconstitutional as it applied to the facts of his case. The State conceded to the latter of Jones’ argument and asked the Court to declare his arrest as invalid and reverse his conviction and sentence. The Court declined to decide whether the ordinance was unconstitutional on its face. The Court noted that the facts of the case left it deeply disturbed as Jones did nothing other than observe and ask questions of the deputies. These actions are constitutionally protected conduct, and thus cannot be used to support a conviction under the Greenville County Ordinance.

Although Thomas Jones was eventually vindicated by The South Carolina Supreme Court he had to endure a long and difficult road to get there.  It is always wise to avoid confrontations with law enforcement whenever possible.  Nobody ever wins an argument with police on the side of the road and the most prudent people remember both their Constitutional Right to Remain Silent, and their Constitutional Right to an Attorney.  Not all confrontations with law enforcement are avoidable. If you find yourself dealing with the ramifications of one, you should absolutely consult an attorney and hire one to help take up your fight in court.

 

Contributor: Rachel N. Ratajczak

About Michael Bunda

Attorney Michael C. Bunda practices with the Retail & Hospitality Practice Group. An experienced litigator, Bunda graduated from the University of South Carolina’s Joseph F. Rice School of Law. He has served as an Assistant Public Defender for Richland Country and as a Principal Attorney for another Columbia law firm. Bunda’s experience brings significant depth to Collins & Lacy’s courtroom bench strength.