By Chris Hoenig
A South Carolina state trooper has been arrested and charged with assault and battery for shooting an unarmed Black man during a traffic stop earlier this month.
Lance Corporal Sean Groubert was also fired from his job with the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
On Sept. 4, Groubert stopped 35-year-old Levar Edward Jones for a seatbelt violation in the parking lot of a gas station/convenience store in Columbia. On dash-cam video from Groubert's cruiser, Jones is seen getting out of his car, seemingly surprised to see the officer pull in behind him.
"Can I see your license, please?" Groubert asked. When Jones reached into his car to retrieve his license, Groubert started shouting for Jones to get out of the car and drew his weapon. As Jones obeyed and leaned back out of his car, Groubert started shooting. At least four rounds were fired, with one hitting Jones in the hip.
Jones put his hands in the air and fell to the ground, as Groubert ordered him to get down and put his hands behind his back.
"I just got my license, you said get my license," Jones can be heard saying. "I grabbed my license, right here. That's my license, right there."
"What did I do, sir?" Jones asked as he was put into handcuffs. Groubert asked Jones if he was hit. "I think so, I can't feel my leg," Jones replied. "I don't know what happened. I just grabbed my license."
When Jones asked why Groubert opened fire, the trooper said, "Well, you dove headfirst back into your car. Then you jump back out, I'm telling you to get out of your car."
Jones can be heard apologizing.
Warning: The dash-cam video below includes the actual shooting.
Groubert "did without justification unlawfully shoot Levar Jones, which produced great bodily injury or was likely to cause great bodily injury. Audio and visual recordings, as well as written statements, obtained are further evidence to indicate the shooting incident was without justification," according to the arrest warrant.
The charge of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature carries a possible 20-year prison sentence. Groubert entered a not-guilty plea and posted $75,000 bond Wednesday night. He is due in court again on Oct. 24.
Groubert's attorney says there is more than one way to interpret the dash-cam video and claims that Jones reaches for his license in an "aggressive" manner.
While he awaits trial, Groubert will not be returning to work. South Carolina Department of Public Safety Director Leroy Smith announced in a statement late last week that Groubert had been fired from the Highway Patrol.
After my review of the facts surrounding this matter, I have determined that Mr. Groubert's actions rose to such an extent that his employment with us must be terminated. The facts of this case are disturbing to me, but I believe this case was an isolated incident in which Mr. Groubert reacted to a perceived threat where there was none. The department's Use of Force Policy makes clear that officers shall use "only the level of force necessary to accomplish lawful objectives" and that "the use of force must be discontinued when it becomes apparent to the officer that the force is no longer needed." That protocol was not followed in this case.
Further, this incident occurred in broad daylight. Mr. Groubert had a clear and unobstructed view of Mr. Jones. While Mr. Groubert was within the law to stop Mr. Jones for a safety belt violation, the force administered in this case was unwarranted, inconsistent with how our troopers are trained, and clearly in violation of Department policies. These violations demonstrate behavior that deviates from SCDPS standards and cannot be tolerated.
The Highway Patrol professionally makes around 750,000 traffic contacts per year. Our troopers are trained to protect the public we serve, and motorists' safety is paramount to us. Groubert's actions in this situation were contradictory to the outstanding training our troopers receive. This case has been thoroughly investigated by the State Law Enforcement Division and has been turned over to the Fifth Circuit Solicitor's Office for review and determination of any subsequent criminal charges. The SCDPS Office of Professional Responsibility's internal investigation of this case continues. Additionally, the trooper's in-car video is part of an ongoing criminal prosecution review and, therefore, will be released in coordination with Solicitor's Office. I want to thank the community for its patience as we continue our administrative investigation into this matter.
Jones, who was treated and released from a local hospital, hopes the shooting can spur change nationwide.
"I know that the community has questions and people are interested in what and why this happened to me," Jones said in a statement to WIS-TV. "I thank God every day that I am here with a story to tell and hope my situation can make a change. My recovery is coming [along] well, and hope this situation can make a change, not just here at home in South Carolina, but coast-to-coast."