No charges for homeless man stunned by Rock Hill police

adys@heraldonline.comFebruary 25, 2013 

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— A York County public defender is calling the use of a stun gun by Rock Hill police officers on a 62-year-old homeless man “outrageous” and characterizing it as police brutality after a judge ruled there was no probable cause to charge the man with resisting arrest.

The November arrest and use of the stun gun on the man was recorded on video from the officers’ patrol car and played in York County magistrate court Friday. The finding of no probable cause means the felony case against Ronald Chason is dismissed.

On Monday, the Rock Hill Police Department stood by the arrest and use of the stun gun, a weapon that momentarily disables a person with an electric shock.

Both officers acted according to department policy and procedures, said Lt. Brad Redfearn, spokesman for the Rock Hill Police Department.

Chason, who is from North Carolina, spent three months in the York County jail after he was hit with the stun gun Nov. 24. He was charged with felony resisting arrest – which carries up to 10 years in prison upon conviction – as well as hitchhiking and damage to personal property, both misdemeanors.

Officers “had no reason” to use a stun gun on the man, 16th Circuit Deputy Public Defender B.J. Barrowclough said, calling Chason a “small man who was no threat.”

“To tase a 62-year-old, hundred-pound homeless guy is just outrageous,” Barrowclough said.

Chason’s confrontation with police happened along the northbound entrance ramp of Interstate 77 at Dave Lyle Boulevard. Officers Sean Bailey and James Rowland stopped to talk with Chason after noticing him “sitting on a bag on the side of the road,” according to a police report, which listed the reason for the stop as a welfare check.

Chason is described in the report as 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighing 130 pounds, but his lawyer said Chason is not nearly that tall and likely weighs about 100 pounds. Police ran a check before the arrest and found Chason had no criminal record, Barrowclough said.

“The reason police stated they even stopped to check on him was for a welfare check,” Barrowclough said. “But they never checked his welfare. They didn’t ask if he was hungry or needed anything. He didn’t curse at the officers. He didn’t threaten them. The idea of a welfare check is totally bogus and disingenuous.”

Asked if the use of force was police brutality, Barrowclough said, “in a word, yes.”

Hitchhiking is against the law in South Carolina, as is walking along an interstate highway.

Officer Bailey told Chason hitchhiking was illegal, but Chason told officers that it was not illegal, according to the report. Bailey wrote in the report that he told Chason he would be free to go if he stopped hitchhiking. Chason refused, the report states, and Chason “violently pulled his hand away from Officer Bailey.”

Chason struck Bailey in the face, the report states, knocking his sunglasses off, before Officer Rowland grabbed Chason and both officers tackled him.

Chason continued to fight and was hit with a stun gun, after which he stopped struggling.

The incident, several minutes long, was recorded by the video camera in the police car. Chason can be heard on the video crying out after he was hit with the stun gun.

Any person in South Carolina accused of a felony has a right to a preliminary hearing before a case is presented to a grand jury. In such a hearing, a judge, usually a magistrate, determines if there is probable cause for the arrest.

In Friday’s court hearing, Barrowclough argued that Chason was not in the road and police did not see him hitchhiking, so officers had no reason nor legal authority to arrest him.

He also argued that Chason “really didn’t do anything” to the officers who “body-slammed him to the ground.”

“The fact is, he was arrested for having the audacity to talk back to the officers,” Barrowclough said. “The officer said, and anyone can hear it on the tape, that if Mr. Chason kept arguing about hitchhiking, that he was going to jail.”

Redfearn said the officer had a conversation with the suspect, tried to explain that hitchhiking is illegal, but the suspect kept insisting that hitchhiking was legal. The officer tried to get the suspect to stop hitchhiking, he said, the suspect refused, so the officer arrested him.

But the suspect “actively resisted the officer,” Redfearn said.

Use of the stun gun was proper to get the suspect to stop resisting, Redfearn said.

Barrowclough balked at the notion that use of force and the stun gun was necessary.

“The videotape speaks for itself,” Barrowclough said. “Mr. Chason was not hitchhiking. He was sitting. He was not a threat to anyone. He did not resist arrest. Period.”

After the judge ruled Friday that there was no probable cause for Chason’s arrest, Rock Hill police asked county prosecutors to present the case to a York County grand jury anyway, in an attempt to get a direct indictment.

The 16th Circuit Solicitor’s Office declined to move forward against Chason on Monday.

“We are not pursuing a direct indictment in that case,” said deputy solicitor Betty Miller.

Chason was released from jail on a personal recognizance bond Friday because of a standing state Supreme Court order that requires release after a person serves 30 days on a pending misdemeanor, Barrowclough said.

After his release from custody Friday, jailers gave Chason back everything he had at the time of arrest. All was in two black garbage bags. At the York County jail lobby, Chason put on a pair of old jeans over his sweatpants, and three layers of shirts under a jacket after re-arranging his belongings.

Chason declined to discuss his arrest or jail time, saying Friday afternoon in the lobby of the Moss Justice Center that he wanted to put the jail stretch behind him. But he did say he was happy to finally get out after 90 days in jail.

Barrowclough said he now hopes, with the dismissal of the felony, that the misdemeanor charges pending against Chason in Rock Hill city court will be dismissed.

The hitchhiking and damage to property charges – Chason is accused of breaking the officer’s sunglasses during the scuffle – are Rock Hill municipal court cases and not General Sessions cases handled by county prosecutors.

Those misdemeanor charges, set for trial in April, are under review, city prosecutors said Monday.

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Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065

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