Ex-trooper videotaped kicking suspect pleads guilty
By Meg Kinnard
COLUMBIA, S.C. — A former South Carolina trooper caught on video kicking a suspect in the head after a highway chase pleaded guilty Monday to violating the man's civil rights, according to federal court documents.
John B. Sawyer faces up to 10 years in prison. A few months earlier, a jury acquitted another trooper of the same charge, depriving a man of his right to be free from the use of unreasonable force by a police officer, in a different incident also captured on video.
The videos were among several the South Carolina Department of Public Safety released last year showing troopers acting aggressively. The videos were made public in response to media requests.
Sawyer was indicted in July after the state released a May 2006 video that showed him kicking Sergio Caridi in the head several times. Caridi, who is from New York, had led troopers and sheriff's deputies on a 30-mile chase on Interstate 95 in a dump truck.
Officers shot out several of the truck's tires before it stopped. In the video, Caridi is seen getting out of the vehicle with his hands up and lying on the ground before Sawyer kicks him in the head. Caridi appears to try to get up, and Sawyer kicks him again.
Another officer used a Taser on Caridi before he was eventually taken to jail, according to disciplinary records.
"The driver got out of his vehicle on his hands and knees but would not listen to commands because he kept getting up," Sawyer wrote in a report about the incident. "I attempted to keep him on the ground by hitting his arms with my leg but he continued."
After the taped incident, Sawyer was placed on administrative leave and resigned several months later.
Messages left for his attorneys were not immediately returned.
Caridi has filed a federal lawsuit accusing Sawyer of using "brutal and excessive force," violating his civil rights, negligence and emotional distress. The lawsuit also accuses the state Department of Public Safety of negligence in training and supervising Sawyer.
Department spokesman Sid Gaulden had no immediate comment Monday.
Authorities began investigating the Highway Patrol in March after tapes emerged of a trooper using a racial epithet. The chiefs of the Highway Patrol and Department of Public Safety resigned amid criticism from black lawmakers.
In October, a federal jury acquitted another South Carolina trooper of the charge faced by Sawyer. Lance Cpl. Steve Garren, who is white, had bragged about striking a fleeing black suspect with his cruiser. Garren insisted during his four-day trial that the crash was an accident and he did not have enough time to react when the sprinting Marvin Grant cut in front of his patrol car on a dark, rural road in 2007.
U.S. Attorney Walt Wilkins said a civil rights task force started in the wake of the incidents will continue to investigate similar allegations. Cases involving officers are among the most difficult, he said.
"We want to make sure that nobody's civil rights are violated and officers are performing their job under the constitutional standards," Wilkins said. "However, we do not want to put them in the position where they cannot perform their jobs for fear of a criminal prosecutions. It's a delicate balance."