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24728 - State v. Graham David Bridgers, III

Davis Adv. Sh. No. 1
S.E. 2d


THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA

In The Supreme Court

The State, Petitioner

v.

Graham Davie Bridgers,

III, Respondent

ON WRIT OF CERTIORARI TO THE COURT OF

APPEALS

Appeal From Florence County

Ralph King Anderson, Jr., Judge

Opinion No. 24728

Heard October 22, 1997 - Filed December 29, 1997

REVERSED

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

petitioner.

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

p. 25


STATE v. BRIDGERS

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.

Factual/Procedural Background

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.

Law/Analysis

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:

It is unlawful for any person to knowingly and wilfully deliver or

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

p. 26


STATE v. BRIDGERS
members of [his] immediate famil[y].1

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


1In 1990, the General Assembly amended the statute to add a

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).

p. 27


STATE v. BRIDGERS

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).


4 Highway Patrol officers and troopers are functionally equivalent to

deputy sheriffs. State v. Cooper, 291 S.C. 332, 335, 353 S.E.2d 441, 442

(1986).

p. 28


STATE v. BRIDGERS

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.

Conclusion

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.


5 Using the same rationale, the Attorney General had earlier opined

that city police officers were "public officials" within the meaning of the

statute. See 1984 Op. S.C. Att'y Gen. No. 84-103.

p. 29