CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — With a load of U.S. mail in tow, Jocquill Bethea’s cell phone lit up. His boss was on the other line.

“They was [sic] like pull over, stop the truck,” Bethea said his boss told him over the phone. “I understand every reason why they asked me to stop the truck. If I would have gotten in an accident, that’s the loss of my license…if I would have got pulled over for an inspection and my license suspended, that’s a seven-year ban on my license.”

Bethea’s commercial driver’s license was suspended. It happened on May 3, but his company wasn’t notified until two days later.

Bethea said he wasn’t notified at all, and no one could tell him why his CDL was suspended.

Jocquill Bethea talks with Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office Clerk Rosea Miller while Chief Magistrate John K. Melton listens during a May 6, 2022 visit to the county courthouse. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Bethea was in his 18-wheeler headed down Interstate-77 with a stop scheduled at a Columbia post office. He drove to the closest post office and parked the truck. Bethea’s wife left work to drive to Columbia to pick her husband up.

The couple drove straight to the South Carolina Department of Motor Vehicle’s license bureau to find out what happened. They then drove to the nearest license bureau in North Carolina, and no one could tell Bethea why his license was suspended. They eventually found out the license suspension happened over a traffic ticket from the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office.

A ticket Bethea said he’d never seen, issued on a date he was nowhere near Chesterfield County, SC.

GUILTY PLEA ENTERED IN ABSENCE

Jocquill Bethea was ticketed in Chesterfield County six months ago. On Dec. 9, Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Corporal Clay Sikes pulled Bethea over and charged him with speeding through McBee – a small town known across the Pee Dee for its speed enforcement.

A reputation built across decades of speed enforcement where speed limits drop from 60 to 25 miles an hour from the north and from 55 to 25 miles an hour from the south.

A McBee man posted this “Watch Your Speed” sign more than 20 years ago near the McBee city limits along Highway 151 heading into town from Charlotte. The speed limit drops from 60 miles an hour to 25 miles an hour in the city of McBee. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Sikes said he clocked Bethea at 52 in a 35 and pulled him over. Sikes wrote Bethea a ticket for 40 in a 35, cutting the driver a break because of the CDL, according to Sikes. Bethea’s court date was set for Jan. 12, 2022.

But two days before the hearing, Bethea had a problem.

“On 1/12/2022, I had COVID. I was sick. I never came to this court date, and we faxed on the 10th, about me not coming this court due the COVID,” Bethea told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr. Bethea said his wife called the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office to ask what they should do about rescheduling the hearing.

The Betheas said the clerk’s office told them to fax the COVID test in to the judge’s office and the hearing would be rescheduled.

But the South Carolina Public Index, the public’s access terminal for statewide court information, shows Bethea’s case was not rescheduled. Instead, Bethea’s speeding ticket was dismissed and Corporal Sikes issued him a new charge during the hearing.

The new charge: failure to possess registration card, a non-moving violation that carries a $155 fine.

The public index shows the speeding ticket dismissal, but also shows Bethea “Pled Guilty” to the registration card violation even though the court admits he was never in the courtroom to enter that plea.

Bethea said his wife called the court on Jan. 12 – a few hours after traffic court ended – to check on the new court date, “They said that that charge was dismissed. They never mentioned that another ticket was wrote to us and that’s the most I got from this,” Bethea told Barr. “When you call a court and they say your charge is dismissed, what did that mean to you?” Barr asked, “I’m free to go. Like it’s done. You’re good to go. That’s what it means to me.”

Bethea said he never heard anything else from the court – not even about the new ticket, his supposed guilty plea, or that he owed the court a fine for the guilty plea he said he never entered.

“I don’t know what was created, but they created a ticket in court, and also had an invisible person in court, which wasn’t me, and said that I pled guilty to a charge I never knew existed,” Bethea said standing outside the magistrate’s office on May 6.

“If you sent the court notice on January 10, two days before your court hearing that you had COVID, you were not present in court, the court noted in the official record that you were here and pled guilty?” Barr asked, “I told you, they had an invisible person. I don’t know.”

The Betheas contacted Queen City News within hours of learning of the license suspension and the Chesterfield County connection. The couple asked for help in getting to the bottom of how this happened.

We met the Betheas at the courthouse the following day.

A COURT WITH NO RECORDS

The clerks in the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office instantly knew Bethea’s case when he walked up to the service window. Both had dealt with the case by phone the day before when Bethea called the office asking how his license got suspended for a guilty plea he didn’t enter.

One clerk confirmed she’d received Bethea’s $155 payment that morning and started the paperwork to get his CDL reinstated.

Bethea wanted to see his case file. He was looking for a copy of both tickets, the docket showing what happened in the Jan. 12 hearing, and the notices the judge’s office claims were sent to him via mail informing him of the new charge and fine.

The Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office could not produce copies of any record in Jocquill Bethea’s case file. This was the original ticket written to Bethea but since it was dismissed, the records were expunged from the state’s online court database. (Source: Jocquill Bethea)

The court couldn’t produce a single document related to the case.

“Do they have like a folder with all my stuff inside of it?” Bethea asked court clerk Rosea Miller. “No,” Miller said, “That officer, when he writes those tickets, he only has the hard copies to go with those and you would go back to him,” Miller explained.

Bethea told Miller he called the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office the day before and the sheriff’s office told him the court would maintain copies of his court records.

The conversation happened as Bethea stood in the public lobby behind a glass window and Chesterfield County Chief Magistrate John K. Melton looked on.

“Like you say, he need [sic] to get in touch with the sheriff’s department and find out what that officer did because we can’t say anything about the officer because it’s the officer that wrote you the ticket,” Judge Melton told Bethea.

“But I need a copy of the notice that they sent to me,” Bethea told the clerk. “Oh, I don’t have that,” Miller responded. “So nobody has [sic] a copy of a notice, but I’m being told a notice was sent to me,” Bethea asked. “Yes. You should have it,” Miller said as the conversation devolved into a near argument over the court’s proof it formally notified Bethea of his case.

“You should have it, also,” Bethea shouted back. “No. I can’t keep up with everything I send you,” Miller responded.

“We don’t keep a copy, there would be no point in us keeping a copy of that,” Miller said, “How do y’all prove y’all send somebody a notice?” Bethea asked, “It’s in our system.” “So you should have a copy of the notice in the system,” Bethea asked, “No,” Miller responded explaining she only keeps notes in the court’s electronic system.

“You still don’t have a copy. It don’t [sic] matter if you telling me you sent the notice, you can’t prove to me that you sent it,” Bethea argued. “And I can’t prove that I didn’t,” Miller said, “So it’s a he say, she say then. That’s an issue,” Bethea countered.

“I’m telling you we did send it,” Miller said. Miller said she sent the notice to the address on Bethea’s CDL, which is his address in Lawrence, MA. The Betheas said they asked Miller in January to forward all communications to their new address in Charlotte and that Miller agreed.

Bethea said he moved to Charlotte last September and his mail is permanently forwarded from the Massachusetts address. In fact, Bethea said he finally received the first notice of his license suspension from the Massachusetts DMV on Saturday May 7 – which was sent to his Massachusetts address and forwarded to his North Carolina address.

Proof, Bethea said, that he would’ve received Chesterfield County’s court notices at the address on his license.

Queen City News asked the judge and the clerk whether the court maintained an audio recording or transcript that would help sort out exactly what happened during the Jan. 12 hearing. Both confirmed there is no such record kept in the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office.

“So there’s no document in the magistrate’s office where you will note an adjudication on a traffic ticket?” Barr asked Miller. “What do you mean?” the clerk responded, “Whether it was a bench trial, guilty, jury trial,” Barr said. “Yes,” Miller responded. “That’s what he’s asking to see,” Barr said.

Chesterfield County Chief Magistrate John K. Melton told Jocquill Bethea in this May 6 conversation that he’d investigate what happened in the Jan. 12, 2022 hearing and would look to reopen his traffic cases to get the matter “corrected.” Melton never contacted Bethea following this conversation. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

“That should be on the ticket,” Judge Melton said. “That’s what’s on the public index, right,” Barr asked. “No, it’s not on that,” Miller responded.

“If we go back to a hearing that happened 30 days ago and we go through the docket, the docket should reflect exactly the adjudication; whether – what I’m asking is, there’s no form the judge checks or signs?” Barr asked. “It should be checked on the ticket, sir,” Judge Melton said.

The court also didn’t have a copy of the COVID test the Betheas said they faxed to the clerk on Jan. 10, although Miller told the judge she remembered the Betheas call about it, “It was January when I talked to him on the telephone, and I don’t remember – you see how many tickets we have…so I can’t say specifically what happened on this date, you know, and stuff like that,” Miller told the judge during the May 6 exchange with Bethea.

The deputy did not use a traditional handwritten traffic ticket, which state law requires officers to issue four copies: one to the offender, one kept in the police agency, one sent to the DMV, and a copy given to the “trial officer” and “must be retained,” according to Section 56-7-20 of the South Carolina Code of Laws.

When it comes to an electronic traffic ticket, which Corporal Sikes used to charge Bethea, the law states an offender “must be given” a copy of the ticket and “as many as three additional printed copies if needed to communicate with the Department of Motor Vehicles, the police agency, and the trial officer.”

The “trial officer” in this case is the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office, which confirmed it didn’t retain a copy of anything related to the Bethea case.

That’s until Bethea visited Chesterfield County Sheriff J.D. Dixon later that morning.

CHIEF JUDGE PROMISES INVESTIGATION

By the end of the back-and-forth between Jocquill Bethea and Rosea Miller, Chief Judge John K. Melton walked out of the office door and stepped into the public lobby. The judge explained how his office recorded court decisions when a handwritten ticket is used by documenting the actions on the copy of the ticket.

A ticket kept by the charging law enforcement officer.

But that doesn’t happen in Chesterfield County with electronic tickets, “But on these tickets, they don’t have that,” Melton said. The court enters the results into the office computer following a hearing, according to the judge.

Chesterfield County Magistrate Vivian Patrick would not explain why she accepted a guilty plea in Jocquill Bethea’s absence during a Jan. 12, 2022 hearing that led to the suspension of his commercial drivers license. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

“I don’t know what went on in that court, but as the chief magistrate I’m trying to do what I can to clear it up, but I don’t know all these questions,” Judge Melton said.

“I understand the gentleman’s beef, I’m with him 100 percent but until we get in touch with this office and find out what happened –” Melton said before Bethea interrupted, “But she (Miller) said yesterday he don’t remember what happened.”

“It’s documented,” Melton said, although his court could not provide a copy of any case records.

QCN followed the Betheas to the Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office where they asked to meet with Corporal Sikes to find out what happened in the Jan. 12 hearing. Instead of the deputy, Sheriff J.D. Dixon met with Bethea.

The sheriff left and came back to the office with a single piece of paper titled ‘NOTICE OF FAILURE TO COMPLY.’ The sheriff said he got the letter from Bethea’s file at the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office. The letter was supposedly sent to Bethea on Feb. 18, telling him he was found guilty of the registration card violation on Jan. 12 and he failed to pay the $155. The letter gave Bethea two weeks to pay the fine or Chesterfield County could sign a warrant for his arrest.

The form is not signed by a judge. It also doesn’t contain a stamp showing the date the letter was filed.

Chesterfield County Sheriff JD Dixon handed Queen City News this letter on May 6. Dixon said the magistrate’s office printed the letter out of Jocquill Bethea’s case file. (Source: Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office)

“Anybody can go into the system and say I sent something, but not really did it. But a copy of it —,” Bethea argued to Judge Melton. “I understand totally, I’m with you. But what we probably need to do, and we may do, we can reopen it (the case) and get that corrected. We can do something like that, but we got to find out – we got to do our tracking,” the judge said.

Melton was not the judge who presided over Bethea’s case and that he doesn’t handle “that side of the house.” Chesterfield County Magistrate Vivian Le-Nette Patrick is listed as the presiding judge in the Public Index. Melton confirmed the Public Index is correct in showing Patrick as Bethea’s judge.

“I’m just getting abreast of this, but I got to do what I got to do to get you corrected,” Melton said, assuring Bethea he’d “expedite” his case.

Judge Melton assured Bethea, and told Queen City News, he’d discuss what happened with Judge Patrick the next business day. Melton also said he’d call Bethea back to let him know the court’s decision.

Judge Melton did not call.

Barr called Melton on May 10, the day after Melton said he’d meet with his judge to investigate what happened. “She’s (Judge Patrick) looking over some stuff,” Melton told Queen City News in the call.

“I’m going to stay out of it,” Melton said, which is the opposite of what he told Bethea he’d take with regard to the case just a few days before. Melton said Judge Patrick would call Queen City News later that day or the next to discuss what happened during the Jan. 12 hearing.

Judge Patrick never returned our call. We found her outside the courthouse on May 17 and attempted to question the judge about the case, “I can’t talk about an impending case. Court administration, based on our judicial canons, I can’t talk about an impending or pending case,” Patrick told Barr.

Patrick made the same response twice more to questions posed to her asking for an explanation for how a guilty plea was entered in Bethea’s absence.

Judge Melton also raised concerns over the letter Sheriff Dixon handed Bethea, telling Bethea and Barr he’d never seen a letter like that sent by his office. Melton made that statement again in the May 10 phone call with Barr, “I ain’t never seen that form before,” referring to the Feb. 18 ‘Notice of failure to comply.’

Bethea said he couldn’t afford an attorney to handle the ticket and can’t hire one now to sort out what happened here, “We can’t afford to get a lawyer to come and have them look at trying to help us fight this case and get some of my money back or anything else. Really I lost both ways, so the only thing I’m looking for now is to get my license.”

A $250 PHONE CALL?

As the Jan. 12 court hearing neared, Jocquill Bethea said he decided to contact an attorney to find out whether he had any options that would keep the two-point speeding ticket from impacting his CDL.

The Betheas said they got online and found Jr Joyner, an attorney based in Cheraw, SC. Joyner’s firm’s website shows he handles traffic cases ranging from speeding tickets, drunken driving defense, to personal injury.

Bethea said he called Joyner for a consultation, but once he was quoted a $250 fee to handle his case, Bethea said he decided against hiring an attorney.

Jocquill Bethea said he contacted Jr Joyner for a consultation over his $76 speeding ticket but never hired or asked Joyner to perform legal work on his case. Joyner would not answer questions about his call with Bethea citing attorney-client privilege. (WJZY Photo/Jody Barr)

Sheriff JD Dixon told Bethea Joyner contacted Corporal Clay Sikes on Jan. 10, asking if the deputy would reduce the speeding ticket.

“An attorney called him (the deputy) and that’s when he reduced it to the other ticket so nothing goes against your CDLs,” Dixon told Bethea on May 6. “An attorney called on your behalf – you talk to an attorney out of Cheraw,” Dixon asked. “We was [sic] having a lawyer get in it because—,” Bethea said before the sheriff interrupted, “Listen to me right quick, because I’m going to explain this whole thing to you. JR Joyner called Clay, right, and Clay agreed to do the other ticket to keep anything off your driver’s license, okay? It’s common throughout the state; every state that writes tickets, but as far as what you’re going through with the court over there, that’s out of my control. My officer did nothing wrong,” the sheriff explained.

“When he (deputy) talked to the lawyer, the lawyer reduced it back, so he dropped your speeding ticket and wrote another ticket and that’s what happened,” Dixon said.

Bethea contends he called Joyner for a consultation and never asked Joyner to make that call.

In a call with Sikes on May 12, the deputy confirmed he got a call from Joyner on Jan. 10 – two days before the court hearing – where Joyner proposed dismissing the speeding charge and that Bethea would plead guilty to the registration violation.

Sikes said he agreed to the settlement and was doing everything he could to keep the moving violation off Bethea’s driving record and to not negatively impact his CDL.

Sikes said he “assumed” Joyner was working for Bethea at the time. Sikes said he called the magistrate’s office on May 12 to find out whether a continuance was granted because Bethea’s Jan. 10 COVID diagnosis. Sikes said the court could not find one and a continuance was not “noted in the case.”

The deputy confirmed he’d only received a call from Joyner asking for a deal and that neither Joyner nor Bethea were present in the courtroom the day of the hearing to enter a guilty plea.

Chesterfield County Sheriff JD Dixon poses for a photograph with Corporal Clay Sikes during a December 2020 award ceremony at the sheriff’s office. (Source: Chesterfield County Sheriff’s Office)

QCN contacted the Joyner Law Firm asking whether Joyner was legally retained in the case. Joyner’s office would not answer any questions citing privacy rules between attorneys and their clients. Joyner also did not answer follow-up questions as to whether Bethea paid his firm or if Bethea owes a debt to the firm.

A search of the South Carolina court’s Public Index does not show any civil filings against Bethea from the law firm concerning a debt collection.


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The Betheas also submitted a list of questions to Joyner on May 16 asking Joyner to produce an agreement for representation, whether Joyner was present at the Jan. 12 hearing, records showing an invoice demanding payment from the Betheas, records showing attorney work product, and whether Joyner called Corporal Sikes on Jan. 10 on their behalf.

As of this report, the Betheas said the Joyner Law Firm had not responded to their emailed questions.

Bethea’s $155 fine payment was processed on May 6 and his license reinstated hours later. By the time the reinstatement happened, Bethea had lost two days of work and his fuel and time going door-to-door between drivers license offices from Charlotte to Columbia, to Chesterfield to figure out how this happened.

Judge Melton assured Bethea he’d help guide him through the process to request a refund of the fine, which would require Melton’s court to reopen his case. Melton did not follow through on informing Bethea of the outcome of his investigation or giving him a new day in court.

Melton also made the same assurances to QCN on May 6, but later said he would not further address the Bethea case.