Davis Adv. Sh. No. 1
THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Supreme Court
The State, Petitioner
Graham Davie Bridgers,
ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF
Appeal From Florence County
Ralph King Anderson, Jr., Judge
Opinion No. 24728
Heard October 22, 1997 - Filed December 29, 1997
Attorney General Charles Molony Condon, Deputy
Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant
Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, and
Solicitor Dudley Saleeby, Jr., all of Columbia, for
Assistant Appellate Defender Robert M. Dudek, of
South Carolina Office of Appellate Defense, of
Columbia, for respondent.
TOAL, A.J.: In this action involving the interpretation of S.C. Code
Ann. § 16-3-1040 (Supp. 1996), we review the Court of Appeals' finding that
Highway Patrol officers are not "public officials" within the meaning of the
statute. We reverse the Court of Appeals and reinstate the conviction and
sentence of the trial court.
On July 10, 1993, Graham Davie Bridgers was involved in a car
accident. Although he left the scene, witnesses were able to identify
Bridgers's vehicle and give the license plate number to the Highway Patrol.
Corporal Jack Chamberlain and two other officers went to Bridgers's home
to investigate. According to Chamberlain's testimony, Bridgers appeared to
be intoxicated. He cursed Chamberlain and wanted to fight. Chamberlain
testified that Bridgers said: "I'm going to get my gun. I'm going to come to
your home in Lake City and I'm going to kill you." Chamberlain then
arrested Bridgers for threatening to kill a police officer.
Bridgers was indicted for violating section 16-3-1040 for threatening to
kill Corporal Chamberlain, an officer in the South Carolina Highway Patrol.
Bridgers moved to quash the indictment on the ground that Chamberlain
was not a "public official" within the meaning of the statute. The trial court
denied the motion. The jury convicted Bridgers, and he was sentenced to five
years imprisonment, suspended upon five years probation, with 500 hours of
community service. Bridgers appealed his conviction and sentence. The
Court of Appeals reversed the trial court and held that Highway Patrol
officers and troopers are not "public officials" within the meaning of section
16-3-1040. State v. Bridgers, 323 S.C. 185, 473 S.E.2d 829 (Ct. App. 1996).
The State filed a petition for writ of certiorari, which we granted.
The State argues that Highway Patrol officers and troopers are "public
officials" within the meaning of S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-1040. We agree. The
statute provides in pertinent part:
convey to a public official ... any letter or paper, writing, print,
missive, document, or electronic communication or any verbal or
electronic communication which contains any threat to take the
life of or to inflict bodily harm upon the public official . . . or
S.C. Code Ann. § 16-3-1040. The statute defines "public official" as "any
elected or appointed official of the United States or of this State or of a
county, municipality, or other political subdivision of this State."2 Id.
The Legislature has directed that all Highway Patrol officers and
troopers "be commissioned by the Governor upon the recommendation of the
Director of the Department of Public Safety."3 S.C. Code Ann. § 23-6-100(A)
(Supp. 1996). In State v. Lewis, 181 S.C. 10, 186 S.E. 625 (1936), we held
that while "the commission does not confer the office[,] ... [it is] evidence of
the appointment." Id. at 37, 186 S.E. at 637 (1936)(emphasis added); see also
63C Am. Jur. 2d Public Officers and Employees § 128 (1997). Thus, the
commission provides evidence that Highway Patrol officers and troopers are
appointed officials, and therefore, "public officials" under section 16-3-1040.
The common law also offers guidance as to whether Highway Patrol
officers are public officials. The General Assembly is presumed to be aware
of the common law, see Caughman v. Columbia YMCA, 212 S.C. 337, 344, 47
S.E.2d 788, 791 (1948), and where a statute uses a term that has a well-
recognized meaning in the law, the presumption is that the General Assembly
intended to use the term in that sense. See Coakley v. Tidewater Constr.
Corp., 194 S.C. 284, 288, 9 S.E.2d 724, 726 (1940). We have held that a
public officer is "[o]ne who is charged by law with duties involving an
exercise of some part of the sovereign power, either small or great, in the
performance of which the public is concerned, and which are continuing, and
not occasional or intermittent." Sanders v. Belue, 78 S.C. 171, 174, 58 S.E.
762, 763 (1907). Moreover, the criteria we have considered when
prohibition against threatening the life of or threatening to inflict bodily
harm upon a teacher or principal, or members of their immediate families.
2The Legislature is currently considering a bill to amend this statute.
The bill would. make it a crime for a person to threaten "a public official or
. . . a teacher or principal of an elementary or secondary school or . . . a
highway patrolman." 1997 S.C. H.B. 3791. Although the bill would add
Highway Patrolmen to the list of protected individuals, it would not amend
the definition of a "public official" to incorporate Highway Patrolmen.
3These commissions may be terminated at the pleasure of the director.
See S.C. Code Ann. § 23-6-100(A) (Supp. 1996).
distinguishing between public officers and public employees include "whether
the position was created by the Legislature; whether the qualifications for
appointment are established; whether the duties, tenure, salary, bond and
oath are prescribed or required [and] whether the one occupying the position
is a representative of the sovereign." State v. Crenshaw, 274 S.C. 475, 478,
266 S.E.2d 61, 62 (1980). No single criterion is dispositive and not all the
criteria are necessary to find that an individual is a public officer. Id.
We find that Highway Patrol officers and troopers come within this
common law definition. First, as law enforcement officers, they are charged
with the discretionary exercise of the sovereign power. Specifically, the
officers and troopers must enforce the "traffic and other related laws." S.C.
Code Ann. § 23-6-100(A) (Supp. 1996). Second, their positions were created
by the Legislature. See id. Third, their duties and powers are established
by statute and include accepting money in the form of bail for traffic
violations, serving criminal process, and making arrests. See S.C. Code Ann.
§§ 23-6-140 to -150 (Supp. 1996). Finally, each Highway Patrol officer and
trooper must file a bond that is conditioned on the faithful performance of his
duties. See S.C. Code Ann § 23-6-120; see also S.C. Code Ann. § 8-3-30
(1986)(providing the form of the bond to be given by all public officers).
Moreover, we have held that the Highway Commissioner and lower
level Highway Department officials are public officials because their duties
are of great concern to the public. See State v. Thrift, 312 S.C. 282, 440
S.E.2d 341 (1994) (lower level officials); State v. Wannamaker, 213 S.C. 1, 48
S.E.2d 601 (1948)(Commissioner). In fact, "the greater the duty to the public
at large, the more likely it is that the individual will be a public official."
Thrift, 312 S.C. at 309, 440 S.E.2d at 356. Highway Patrol officers and
troopers are engaged in a duty of great concern to the public: enforcement of
the criminal laws of the state.
Further, we have considered other law enforcement officers to be "public
officials." For example, a deputy sheriff is a public official for purposes of
workers' compensation.4 See Willis v. Aiken County, 203 S.C. 96, 26 S.E.2d
313 (1943). Likewise, we have found police officers to be "public officials" for
purposes of defamation and the bribery statute. See McClain v. Amold, 275
S.C. 282, 270 S.E.2d 124 (1980) (defamation); State v. Crenshaw, 274 S.C.
475, 266 S.E.2d 61 (1980) (bribery).
deputy sheriffs. State v. Cooper, 291 S.C. 332, 335, 353 S.E.2d 441, 442
Public policy also favors treating Highway Patrol officers as "public
officials." In State v. Carter, __S.C.__, 478 S.E.2d 86 (Ct. App. 1996), a
case decided several months after Bridgers, the Court of Appeals held that
city police officers are "public officials" within the meaning of section 16-3-
1040. The Court of Appeals reasoned that municipal police officers are
"public officials" because the General Assembly provided that "[a]ny
municipality may appoint or elect as many police officers . . . as may be
necessary for the proper law enforcement in such municipality and fix and
prescribe their duties." S.C. Code Ann. § 5-7-110 (Supp. 1996). Because city
police officers are elected or appointed, they are public officials for purposes
of section 16-3-1040. See Carter, __S.C.__ at , 478 S.E.2d at 87.5 As a
result of Bridgers and Carter, the law currently protects law enforcement
officers inconsistently. An individual may threaten the life of a city police
officer and violate the statute, while no violation of the statute would occur
if that individual made the same threat to a Highway Patrol officer. No
rational basis exists for this inconsistency.
For the foregoing reasons, we hold that Highway Patrol officers and
troopers are "public officials" within the meaning of section 16-3-1040.
Therefore, the defendant's conviction is affirmed and the Court of Appeals'
decision is REVERSED.
FINNEY, C.J., MOORE, WALLER and BURNETT, A.J., concur.
that city police officers were "public officials" within the meaning of the
statute. See 1984 Op. S.C. Att'y Gen. No. 84-103.