HORRY COUNTY, SC (WBTW) – Tens of thousands of people in South Carolina wanted for skipping court dates or failing to pay fines get a break from the state’s highest court.
The chief justice of the State Supreme Court ordered judges to stop jailing low-level offenders, saying his decision is about constitutional rights. In a memorandum issued September 15, Chief Justice Donald Beatty told state judges he is concerned people are being sentenced to jail without being told their constitutional right to a lawyer.
In the memorandum, Beatty writes, “It has continually come to my attention that defendants, who are neither represented by counsel nor have waived counsel, are being sentenced to imprisonment.”
As a result, magistrates across the state are ordering law enforcement to stop serving outstanding bench warrants. Thousands of low level offenders in Horry County who face jail time may have what appears to be a get out of jail card.
“We’re just going to air on the side of caution and remove all the warrants from the system,” Horry County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Tom Fox told News13 Monday.
The sheriff’s office is in the process of reviewing more than 7600 bench warrants for people who skip court dates or fail to pay fines. Fox said his department and the city of Aynor are also reviewing 180 bench warrants out of the city.
Beatty declared people arrested on bench warrants cannot be jailed if found guilty, they can only be fined. “This only affects people who weren’t represented by council or didn’t sign a waiver of representation,” Fox explained.
In the past, people who failed to pay fines or did not show up for court went to jail. Advocates for Beatty’s declaration say this has turned jails into a “debtors prison.”
“If they don’t have the money, you can’t just throw them in jail,” Fox said.
Beatty’s decision has prompted worry that this could affect crime victims. For example, of the 7,696 warrants under review in Horry County, 226 are for domestic violence.
“Since the cases will be magistrate level cases, we would not be concerned about anyone really being in danger,” said Patti Fine, the county’s director of victim services.
News13 asked Fine Monday if and how victims would be notified if domestic violence warrants are recalled.
“I think it would do more damage to their emotions and the state of their victimization to go straight into calling everybody and telling them, ‘Oh we’ve got this thing going on,’” Fine explained.
She said they would not contact victims until the magistrates office decides which cases are affected.
People who fail to pay fines or are convicted in their absence will be sent letters explaining how they can square up their cases.
Beatty states in the memorandum, “When imposing a fine, consideration should be given to a defendant’s ability to pay.”
Fox said if these low-level offenders do not respond, a warrant can be issued, but instead of being jailed they would go before a magistrate.
He estimates it will take his department up to 900 hours to sort through all of their bench warrants.