CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, S.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Jocquill Bethea couldn’t believe how quickly he got a response. Less than a week earlier, he filed a formal complaint against a Chesterfield County attorney he called in January to find out his options on how to handle a two-point speeding ticket.
Bethea contends his call with attorney Jr Joyner was a consultation and when Joyner quoted him $250 to get his ticket reduced to a non-moving violation, Bethea said he decided to go to court and handle the ticket himself.
“I never, ever hired Jr Joyner,” Bethea told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr in May.
Bethea was ticketed for speeding in McBee, a small Chesterfield County town located on a four-lane highway between Charlotte and Darlington. The town is notorious for its reputation as a speed trap, earned over decades of speeding tickets. A Chesterfield County deputy clocked Bethea running 52 in a 35 mile an hour zone in his personal vehicle last December.
Bethea holds a commercial driver’s license and the officer, Corporal Clay Sikes, told QNC that during the stop he reduced Bethea’s ticket to 40 in a 35 to keep a high points violation from impacting his CDL. Bethea’s court hearing was set for Jan. 12 at the county magistrate’s office.
But, two days before the hearing Bethea was diagnosed with COVID 19. Bethea called the court to report his positive test result and said the clerk’s office told him to fax in his COVID test and they’d reschedule his hearing. Bethea said he and his wife faxed the test that day and called the magistrate’s office back on the day of his hearing to find out the new court date.
“When we called on that day of the court date, they said that that charge was dismissed,” Bethea told Barr. “When you call a court and they say your charge is dismissed, what did that mean to you,” Barr asked Bethea, “I’m free to go. Like it’s done. You’re good to go. That’s what it means to me.”
Bethea said the court never mentioned the hearing was held in his absence and the deputy dismissed the original speeding ticket and issued a new ticket during the hearing. The new ticket charged Bethea with not having a vehicle registration card, which Bethea contends he did have a registration card and handed it to the officer during the traffic stop in December.
Bethea would later find out the officer entered a guilty plea to the registration card violation in Bethea’s absence and Chesterfield Magistrate Vivian Patrick accepted the plea, then ordered Bethea to pay a $155 fine. But Bethea said he never received any notification from the magistrate’ office of anything that happened in the hearing that was supposed to have been rescheduled.
On May 5, Bethea got a call from his trucking company to immediately park his rig. The company got a message from the Department of Motor Vehicles that Bethea’s CDL was suspended for failure to pay the $155 fine.
Bethea called QCN for help after he said the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office would not help him figure out how he entered a guilty plea during a hearing he never attended.
“Because my life is based on CDLs, I’m a truck driver. That’s what I do for a living. So, with my license suspended everything else is gone for me. That’s what that’s my income and they just took it all away from me for no reason,” Bethea told Barr during an interview last month outside the magistrate’s office.
When Bethea went to the sheriff’s office on May 6, he learned an attorney he said he called for a consultation and never had an agreement with, had acted on his behalf.
“When he (Corporal Clay Sikes) talked to the lawyer (Jr Joyner), the lawyer reduced it back so he dropped your speeding ticket and wrote another ticket and that’s what happened, okay,” Chesterfield County Sheriff JD Dixon told Bethea during a May 6 meeting in the sheriff’s office lobby. “Did you follow up with JR in Cheraw,” Dixon asked Bethea, “We haven’t talked to nobody–I was sick two weeks with COVID,” Bethea said. “Did you talk to a lawyer,” the sheriff asked, “No, we didn’t ever pay a lawyer,” Bethea said before the sheriff interrupted.
“No, did you talk to a – I ain’t say did you pay him. Did you talk to him,” the sheriff asked again, “We spoke to a lawyer,” Bethea said before the sheriff interrupted him again.
“Stop right there. JR Joyner – who you spoke with – JR called him (Corporal Clay Sikes) and got it worked out. Clay took it on himself to go ahead and do this for the lawyer thinking you were going to contact the lawyer back, the one you originally called,” Sheriff Dixon told Bethea, telling Bethea “My officer did nothing wrong.”
Sikes confirmed his call with Joyner when QCN contacted him last month. Sikes also confirmed Joyner did not show up to the court hearing when the judge accepted the guilty plea based off the information relayed to Judge Patrick from the conversation between Sikes and Joyner.
Bethea said he never called Joyner back because he said he decided to not pay Joyner $250 to handle a $76 speeding ticket. He said he also would not have agreed to pay another $155 fine on top of the $250 lawyer’s fee to keep a two-point violation off his driving record.
Calls and emails to Joyner asking for an interview last month were declined. Joyner said he would only talk about the Bethea case if Bethea would agree – in writing – to waive the attorney-client privilege. The privilege protects communications between attorneys and their clients.
Bethea refused to do so because he said he never had an attorney-client relationship with Joyner. Bethea said that’s further evidenced by the fact that Joyner never followed up with Bethea after his call with the deputy.
On May 22. Bethea filed a formal complaint with the South Carolina Supreme Court’s Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the court’s investigative unit charged with investigating complaints against the state’s judges and attorneys licensed to practice law in South Carolina.
“I contacted Chesterfield County and was advised the original ticket was dismissed however the same officer “did me a favor” and wrote me another ticket for failure to possess a registration. I was not present during any of this, I did not agree to any charge, nor was I made aware of any of this. They claim to have sent a notice but I have never received one,” Bethea wrote in the May 22 complaint.
“I later found out that they entered an agreement with an Attorney that I never retained. I initially contacted the attorney to get a quote for his services, however, that is where the conversation ended. He was never retained nor was there an agreement made that he would represent me in any kind of way,” Bethea told the Office of Disciplinary Counsel.
The ODC, just three days after receiving the complaint, wrote Bethea telling him his complaint would be investigated.
“We have received your complaint against Franklin B. Joyner, Jr., Esquire. We will conduct an investigation in to the matters you have reported. You will not necessarily be contacted prior to a decision regarding your complaint, therefore, if you have any additional information or documentation to support your allegations you should submit it at this time,” Assistant Disciplinary Counsel Kelly B. Arnold wrote on the May 25 letter addressed to Bethea.
The letter also informed Bethea if the investigation reveals misconduct, the result could result in a secret “letter of caution or admonition, a public reprimand, suspension or disbarment.” If the ODC investigation does not find evidence of misconduct, the letter states the complaint will be “dismissed.”
The ODC also told Bethea if he believes his “interests have been compromised,” he should hire an attorney to “determine your legal options.”
“You will be notified of the final disposition of your complaint. It is often many months after receipt of a complaint before a final decision is made,” Arnold wrote in closing the letter.
Although Bethea’s complaint included Judge Vivian Patrick, the ODC response letter did not mention the judge. Joyner did not respond to a QCN interview request regarding the ODC complaint.
Annual figures released by both the Commission on Lawyer Conduct and the Commission on Judicial Conduct show few complaints resulted in disciplinary action between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 – the latest report published – shows of the 1,461 complaints filed against SC judges and attorneys during that time, 210 were not dismissed.
The reports show 83% of all complaints were found to not fall within ODC’s jurisdiction, to lack evidence, or were dismissed by the ODC investigative panel.
Of the 210 judges and lawyers disciplined by the ODC, nearly everyone was settled with a confidential letter of caution, according to the ODC annual report. The letters are secret and the ODC cannot disclose the letters to the public or identify the lawyers and judges who received them.
The report also shows 22 layers were disbarred between 2020 and 2021. Only one judge was publicly reprimanded during the 2020 – 2021 fiscal year and none were removed from office.
“I was hoping it was against the judge and the magistrate’s office and the officer that was on duty, but apparently, they’re just going after the lawyer, which I don’t understand,” Bethea told QCN. “Does this letter give you some bit of hope that something may happen to make this right,” Barr asked Bethea.
“Nope. What I feel is they going to throw it under the bus once again. The government takes [sic] your money and that’s just the way it is. It costs to be in America. I just took a charge I didn’t commit, and I paid a fine that I had no reason to pay at all. Personally, as of right now, I don’t know what else to do besides accept it for what it is,” Bethea said.
In our trip to Chesterfield County on May 6 to document Bethea’s conversations with the magistrate’s office, Chief Magistrate John K. Melton told Bethea he’d investigate what happened that allowed a guilty plea to be entered when he wasn’t in court to enter it.
“What we probably need to do, and we may do, we can reopen it and get that corrected. We can do something like that, but we got to find out – we got to do our tracking,” Melton told Bethea on May 6. “I’m just getting abreast of this. But I got to do what I got to do to get you corrected.”
Melton did not preside over Bethea’s Jan. 12 hearing, but promised Bethea he’d help him figure it out, “That judge who adjudicated over that, she’ll be here Monday and I need to address that with her to get this straight and she’s the clerk that works over there and she’ll know more about the case than anybody because I don’t do that side of the house,” Melton said. “I’m the chief magistrate and until I find out what’s going on here, but as I said, I’m going to do whatever I can to help you, sir.”
In a call with Melton after his Monday meeting with Judge Patrick, Melton told QCN he was not getting involved in Bethea’s case, “She’s (Judge Patrick) looking over some stuff,” Melton told Barr in the call.
“I’m going to stay out of it,” Melton said, which is the opposite of what he told Bethea he’d do with regard to the case just a few days before. Melton said Judge Patrick would call Queen City News 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 her 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 gave 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. As of this report, the Chesterfield County Magistrate’s Office has never issued an explanation for why Judge Patrick accepted the guilty plea or what the court plans to do with Bethea’s case.
“I can’t even talk about the case at his point,” Judge Melton told Barr in a June 2 follow-up call. “I’ve been told not to do certain things,” Melton said, but would not explain the “things” or who counseled him on this.
Melton said Bethea has the option to file an appeal, but that Bethea would have to drive back to the magistrate’s office and speak to his clerk to do so. “I don’t trust them. If I couldn’t trust them with this ticket why should I trust them to handle this correctly,” Bethea told QCN.
“The judge, the sheriff, the magistrate – they all into something from what I understand, from what I see. But, because of the position they’re in, they not going to be in trouble for anything; I will take the loss,” Bethea said.