DORCHESTER COUNTY, SC (Queen City News) — The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division executed a raid of a Lowcountry farm in September 2019 that ended with Trent Pendarvis’ arrest and the destruction of his $2 million hemp crop.
SLED agents came from as far away as Columbia and Florence to help carry out the raid and arrest.
Agents brought at least one body camera with them when they descended upon Pendarvis’ family farm near Harleyville. The SC Department of Agriculture awarded Pendarvis a hemp growers license six months before the raid, but after Pendarvis said he reported updated coordinates on an acreage amendment application, the SCDA denied his amendment and asked SLED for a criminal investigation.
SCDA, led by elected commissioner Hugh Weathers, found Pendarvis was in “willful violation” of the SC Hemp Farming Act after Pendarvis planted a portion of his 40-acre hemp allotment in a different field on his family farm.
The original field Pendarvis told SCDA he planned to plant was not usable by the time planting season came, the farmer told Queen City News Chief Investigator Jody Barr. A weeks-long drought followed by heavy rains forced Pendarvis to relocate his crop down the road to another plot he owns along Maple Hill Road.
Emails Pendarvis uncovered through two separate civil lawsuits against SLED and the SCDA showed SLED’s administration sought a legal opinion from the SC Attorney General’s Office in August 2019, just weeks before the raid. In that opinion, the AG’s office counseled SLED to give Pendarvis a chance to be heard in court out of an “abundance of caution” to ensure his due process rights are protected.
“It is the opinion of this office that in the absence of legislative direction, SLED should seek judicial authorization for the seizure of legally-grown hemp in order to ensure that the grower receives due process consistent with the Constitutions of the United States and the State of South Carolina,” Solicitor General Robert Cook wrote.
“Given the absence of any legislative direction in the Hemp Farming Act, we advise that the prudent course of action would be to provide that opportunity in a hearing. We hope that this also will lead to judicial clarification of some of the many questions created as a result of the Hemp Farming Act,” Cook continued in the legal opinion.
Records obtained by Pendarvis’ civil attorney, Patrick McLaughlin, show SLED initially sought judicial approval from South Carolina Circuit Court Judge Diane Goodstein on Sept. 11, 2019. SLED General Counsel Adam Whitsett asked Goodstein to sign an order allowing SLED to seize and destroy Pendarvis’ hemp crop over the alleged “willful violation.” Emails obtained by McLaughlin show Goodstein denied Whitsett’s request, directing SLED to request a court date so Pendarvis could have the chance to present his case before SLED destroyed his property.
“Please let the judge know that we appreciate her consideration and do not anticipate needing a hearing on this matter at this time,” Whitsett wrote to Goodstein’s law clerk on Sept. 11, 2019.
On Sept. 19, a little more than a week later, SLED went to Judge Ryan Templeton, a lower court magistrate in Dorchester County, and asked for an arrest warrant for Pendarvis, charging him with unlawful cultivation of hemp — a crime that carries no civil or criminal penalty, according to the charging documents. The warrant affidavit SLED Agent John Neale filed with Templeton’s court does not mention SLED’s intention to seize or destroy the crop.
That same morning, SLED agents led my Major Frank O’Neal, raided Pendarvis’ hemp field, arrested him, and had the SC Forestry Commission destroy his crop.
First Circuit Solicitor David Pascoe’s office dismissed Pendarvis’ charge in August 2022, stating that although SLED had probable cause to arrest Pendarvis, there was not enough evidence to prove he violated the SC Hemp Farming Act.
On Sept. 16, 2022, Pendarvis filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against SLED Chief Mark Keel, multiple SLED agents and its general counsel, SC Attorney General Alan Wilson and other staffers, SC Department of Agriculture Commission Hugh Weathers and multiple staffers, multiple SC Forestry Commission staff, and Dorchester County Sheriff L.C. Knight and three deputies involved in the raid.
SLED’S BODY CAMERA CONDUCT
Trent Pendarvis’ legal team, which includes Florence attorney Patrick McLaughlin and Orangeburg attorney Brad Hutto, went to work to gather the evidence SLED gathered against Pendarvis.
Part of that evidence included three body camera recordings and ten other video recordings that appear to have been made by a cell phone. The recordings captured the moment Pendarvis drove up into his field on Sept. 19, 2019.
The reason these recordings were released is because of the litigation involving Pendarvis. Without that, these recordings would likely have never been made public.
In 2017, the SC legislature allowed law enforcement agencies to keep body camera recordings from the public by exempting those particular recordings from the South Carolina Freedom of Information Act.
The first person the video shows Pendarvis encountered: SLED Major Frank O’Neal.
The first body camera recording shows a SLED agent sitting in a Chevy patrol truck, rustling around before stepping out and walking toward Pendarvis and O’Neal. The recording shows Pendarvis and O’Neal shaking hands as the agent armed with the body camera walks toward the men.
The agent wearing the body camera is identified in Pendarvis’ lawsuit as SLED Captain Glenn Wood. Wood heads SLED’s Pee Dee Region Office in Florence.
The video shows O’Neal walk up to intercept Wood before SLED Agent John Neale joins Wood and the men then walk to Pendarvis. Neale tells Pendarvis his Maple Hill Road hemp “is not lawfully able to grow,” because “it’s outside your permit,” the agent claimed in the recording.
“We’ve got to do something with this. So are you good with us cutting it down, or?” Neale asked Pendarvis. “I’d rather you talk to my lawyer first,” Pendarvis replied. The body camera recordings show this was Pendarvis’ first request of many he made to contact his attorney during the raid.
Agents initially told Pendarvis he could make a phone call, but that changed after the video shows Major O’Neal call Captain Wood to the side, the pair walk away from Pendarvis and Wood turns his body camera off.
The conversation between O’Neal and Wood was not recorded.
When the agents restart the camera, Neale is readjusting Pendarvis’ handcuffs when the farmer asks once again to make a call, “Anything in the truck that we need to secure,” Wood asked Pendarvis in the recording. “My shotgun’s in there and all my tools. I can call my dad to come get it,” Pendarvis told Wood and Neale. Both agents immediately agree to Pendarvis’ suggestion, “That would be good,” Wood is captured as saying in the recording, while Neale asked Pendarvis,” Can you do that?”
“If I can get my phone,” Pendarvis replied. “Yes, sir,” Wood said in the recording.
Major O’Neal is not standing with Pendarvis and the agents when these assurances are made. The body camera recording shows O’Neal standing several yards away talking with a Dorchester County deputy and a S.C. Forestry Commission employee.
Pendarvis, with his hands cuffed in front of him, walks back toward his pickup truck and leaned against the front of his truck when O’Neal turns to him and the other two agents.
“I mean, I can’t call my lawyer before y’all mess with it,” Pendarvis asked O’Neal. “No sir, you can call your lawyer down at the jail. We gone cut it regardless, your lawyer can’t stop us from cutting it. It’s growing in an unlawful location,” O’Neal told the farmer.
Pendarvis asked again to call his father to retrieve his truck. O’Neal told him to “hold on one second,” before walking away. “We’re going to let you call somebody, but just hold on right now,” O’Neal told Pendarvis as the agent held the warrant and the warrant affidavit in his hands.
O’Neal spent the next two minutes reading the charging documents to Pendarvis before handing him over to a Dorchester County. Pendarvis said O’Neal never let him call anyone.
The second body camera recording ends after Wood walks away from Pendarvis, who was still standing against his own truck, and walks to talk with O’Neal, a state forestry worker, and a Dorchester County deputy at the edge of the hemp field.
Wood ended the recording as soon as he reached O’Neal and the deputy.
Pendarvis said he sat in the back of a Dorchester County Sheriff’s patrol car, handcuffed, and watched as SC Forestry Commission agents unloaded the tractor and bush hog used to destroy his entire hemp allotment planted off Maple Hill Road.
BWC: ‘ACCURATE AND UNBIASED RECORDED ACCOUNT’
SLED does not publish its body-worn camera policies on its website for the public to see. On Sept. 13, we filed a S.C. Freedom of Information Act request with SLED, requesting a copy of the agency’s BWC policy in effect at the time of the Pendarvis raid.
We also asked for any updated policies.
It took SLED until Oct. 4 – more than 34 days – to produce copies of the policies and to disclose them under the SCFOIA. SLED sent us three versions of its policies, one from May 2019, another from February 2022 and another updated on June 22, 2022.
The BWC policy states the reason SLED has a policy at all is to “assist agents in the performance of their duties by providing an accurate and unbiased recorded account of an incident and to “maximize effectiveness of the BWC and maintain integrity of evidence,” SLED’s policy orders that “all personnel shall” follow the BWC policy.
The policy states that cameras “shall be utilized” when agents are “working assignments in uniform and interacting with the public, unless exempted to do so by” Chief Mark Keel.
We asked SLED spokeswoman Renee Wunderlich and Executive Affairs Director, Ryan Alphin, whether Captain Glenn Wood was operating his body camera with an exemption, but neither one responded to our question.
The policy defines “in uniform” as an agent “holding themselves out to the public as law enforcement and can be reasonably identified as such.” Each SLED agent in the body camera records had on a SLED golf shirt with the SLED badge embroidered onto the chest. A reflection in Captain Glenn Wood’s cell phone shows he was also dressed in the same uniform as the other agents conducting the raid.
The policy defines “interacting with the public” as a “citizen encounter” involving a list of scenarios, which include “searches, arrests” and “any time that enforcement action may be taken.” The body camera recordings show SLED agents searching Pendarvis, arresting him, then executing an enforcement action when cell phone videos show agents chopping up the hemp crop and watching as a S.C. Forestry Commission tractor mowed the crop down.
The “interacting with the public” section requires agents to turn on their BWC “during each citizen encounter.”
The recordings provided to Pendarvis’ legal team contained only one BWC recording. The videos show no other agent wearing a body camera during the raid.
The SLED policy also details when agents can turn a body camera off. “Exceptions include situations that would risk the safety of confidential informants or where there is a victim of rape or sexual assault.” Agents never indicate any of those factors as a reason to turn off the body camera.
In fact, none of the agents addressed the reason for turning the camera off in any of the body camera videos reviewed by QCN.
“During these types of encounters, once the BWC is activated it should remain on until the incident had reached a conclusion or the agent leaves the scene,” the policy states.
The only other times SLED’s policy allows an agent to stop a recording is when “the situation has evolved beyond the immediate preliminary encounter and has stabilized, if it becomes necessary to discuss the specifics of the event, investigation, or case with another officer or supervisor in furtherance of the investigation, the agent will note this on the video and may end the recording,” according to SLED’s BWC policy 13.43.
“The intention to stop the recording will be noted by the agent verbally on the BWC,” according to the policy.
At no point in the recording does it show any agent noting the intention to stop the recording or the grounds for doing so.
SLED, as it has throughout our ‘Seize and Destroy’ reporting, declined to interview with us to explain its BWC policy and whether agents followed agency policy in their use of the body camera on scene during the Pendarvis raid. “As Chief Keel has consistently stated, it is inappropriate to comment at this time while litigation is pending,” Alphin responded in an Oct. 13 email to QCN.
Since SLED would not cooperate in our report, we filed SCFOIA requests to find out whether SLED reviewed the questions raised concerning the body camera policies detailed in our report. SLED has until Oct. 27 to respond to our requests.
Pendarvis’ attorneys believe there could’ve been something in the SLED sidebar conversations that would’ve helped prove Pendarvis’ conspiracy allegations.
“I would love to know exactly what was said when Major O’Neal called agent Wood to the side and the audio goes out because all those folks were included on the email that SLED sent Judge Goodstein trying to get that order signed,” McLaughlin told Barr in an interview in September.
“They all knew that the chief administrative judge for Dorchester County had refused to sign an order for it. And so, you’ve got the guy sitting there wanting to call his lawyer and what Major O’Neal at some point says, ‘Well, there ain’t nothing your lawyer can do. We’re gonna take the crop anyway.’ Well, that’s not true. There was something the lawyer could do and we know the lawyer can do something because the lawyer did it in Marion,” McLaughlin said.
“First they’re saying, Yeah, we’ll let you call him,’ and then that stops. Why did they stop it? They stopped it because they knew that what they were doing was wrong. And they knew that if it got in front of a judge that day, a judge would have put a stop to it. That’s exactly why they didn’t tell the magistrate what they intended to do that day, either. They didn’t want the magistrate to put a stop to it,” McLaughlin told Barr.
“Transparency and accountability. They not only protect the rights of the citizens, they also protect the integrity of the system – and they protect the officers,” Pendarvis attorney Brad Hutto told Barr. “You can’t falsely accuse the officers of saying or doing something when they can show on camera: I didn’t do that. Same thing with the person who’s being accused.”
Hutto said he, too, wanted to know what agents were discussing in those unrecorded conversations during the Pendarvis raid.
“Guess who gets to turn the cameras on and off? Not the defendants, only the people wearing the cameras. And I don’t think they should ever turn the cameras off in the course of an investigation. Because if they turn the cameras off, you can be assured they are going to try to do something that they don’t want the public to know about,” Hutto said.
“They’re not doing it to protect the accused,” Barr asked Hutto, “They certainly are not when they turn the cameras off.”
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