By Glenn Smith
Post and Courier
SUMMERVILLE, S.C. — Angered and bloody after being chased for speeding on Christmas Eve, an off-duty North Charleston police officer questioned why her pursuers hadn't simply given a fellow officer a free pass.
Officer Christine Phinney told a Dorchester County sheriff's deputy that if she stopped another police officer for speeding, she would let them go and say "take it easy, see you later and have a good night."
"You know, I pull people over for driving 100 mph - you know what they say? 'I'm a narcotics officer in an unmarked vehicle.' 'Great, well slow it down, have a good night,' " Phinney explained. "As long as they show me a badge, I don't care."
That proclamation was captured by a Summerville police cruiser's video camera after Phinney led officers on a pursuit through town and tussled with a deputy, bloodying her lip in the process. On the tape, Phinney can be heard cursing the deputy and warning that he would "have a much bigger problem" when her husband, Dorchester County Sheriff's Lt. Tony Phinney, arrived on the scene.
"I'm Lt. Phinney's wife," she shouts on the tape. "He's gonna love it when you get sued for a (expletive) fat lip."
Christine Phinney, 41, was ticketed for reckless driving and disorderly conduct after the episode, but was allowed to go home rather than spend the night in jail. Sheriff's officials have insisted the incident was handled by the book and that Tony Phinney's position in the department had no bearing on the case.
The tape, however, raises new questions about the episode. Deputy Mike Files' report mentions that Phinney had "glassy" eyes and he asks at one point on the tape how much she had to drink that night. She didn't respond, and deputies never gave her a Breathalyzer to measure her blood alcohol level. Files is also heard on the tape telling Phinney she is under arrest for resisting arrest. That charge never materialized, however.
Sheriff's Maj. John Garrison, who wasn't there that night, said final charges are at an officer's discretion, and deputies may have later decided that a resisting count wasn't warranted. As for her possible drinking, deputies need probable cause to file a charge before conducting a Breathalyzer test, and Phinney did not show signs of impairment, he said.
North Charleston police have placed Phinney on administrative office duty while they review the episode. Police Chief Jon Zumalt said he is withholding action until all the facts are in and the case is resolved in Dorchester County. She is scheduled to appear in court on the charges Jan. 25.
Tony Phinney has said he and his wife cannot comment on the pending case.
The Dec. 24 incident began when a Summerville police officer spotted Phinney driving a BMW 65 mph in a 40 mph zone on Central Avenue, according to a police report. She allegedly passed cars by driving into the median while police tried to get her to pull over, police said. She later argued with and cursed at a sheriff's deputy who had to wrestle her to the ground to place her in handcuffs on Hawthorne Avenue, police reports stated.
The incident was captured on video cameras in the Summerville cruiser and the deputy's car. Summerville police released their tape this week in response to a request from The Post and Courier. The Dorchester County Sheriff's Office, however, will not release its tape until Phinney goes to court, Garrison said.
"It's evidence in a court case," he said, adding that its early release could prejudice the case.
The Summerville video documents the brief pursuit, which was taken over by Files in accordance with Summerville's chase policy. The video contains no images of the altercation because Files' car blocks the camera's view on Hawthorne Avenue. The tape, however, contains audio of the tussle and the exchange between the deputy and Phinney.
Phinney insisted she did nothing wrong and didn't realize officers were after her car. As she pressed her case, Files told her she could argue the matter in court.
"Yeah? See this fat lip, that's going to be argued in court," she said. "When my husband gets here, you are going to have a much bigger problem."
When Files told her she was being charged with resisting arrest, she loudly questioned the decision. "For what? I didn't do anything to be under arrest?" she yelled.
"Ma'am, I'm not going to argue with you," Files responded.
"I'm a police officer!" Phinney screamed. "I know the law."
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