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Pawleys Island: Magistrate challenged in case over leash law ticket

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Darwin Wheeler, who is scheduled to get his day in court Sept. 17 for a leash law ticket in Pawleys Island, said he plans to file a motion to have Magistrate John Benso removed from his case.

Benso represented Wheeler when he was in private law practice and refused to recuse himself at Wheeler’s request.

Wheeler said that Benso “drove a Mack truck across attorney-client privilege” during a hearing regarding three subpoenas last week.

Should Wheeler’s motion for a new judge be granted, his trial would be rescheduled.

That would make most of what transpired last week in Murrells Inlet Summary Court a moot point.

Wheeler agreed to dismiss one of three people asking to have their subpoenas for the Sept. 17 trial quashed. Former Town Council Member Mary McAllister said she is undergoing chemotherapy treatments and has a doctor’s appointment in Charleston the day of the trial. “I never know how I’m going to feel,” she said.

Wheeler said he had no problem withdrawing her subpoena in light of her condition.

Two others seeking relief from subpoenas, Police Chief Mike Fanning and Council Member Mike Adams, didn’t get an answer Thursday. Fanning said his wife is having surgery in Charleston, and Adams said he has already purchased airline tickets for a vacation covering the day of the trial. Wheeler said they are both instrumental to his case and would not agree to dismissing them.

Benso asked Fanning to provide a letter from his wife’s doctor and Adams to document the cost of changing his airline tickets, but he said later that it’s time for this case to be heard.

“No matter when we schedule this trial,” Benso said, “somebody is not able to appear. He is entitled to his witnesses. Whether he makes good use of them is up to him. I’m not out to make anybody’s life miserable, but we’ve got to get this matter tried.”

Benso had refused to approve Wheeler’s subpoenas for Town Council members, town staff and the police chief months ago. Circuit Court Judge Larry Hyman reinstated them upon appeal.

“Were my subpoenas ever issued,” Wheeler asked the magistrate, “or is this some shell game you are playing?”

Benso was quick to react from the bench. “I’m going to warn you, sir, I know you think this is nothing more than a joke,” he said. “It’s serious.”

Wheeler has requested a jury trial for a leash law violation he received more than a year ago from Pawleys Island police. He claims the dog was on his property and not subject to the law. Wheeler attempted to show town board members hundreds of photos of unleashed dogs on the beach but was rebuffed during a meeting earlier this year. Benso told Wheeler on Thursday that he would not be allowed to show the dog photos to a jury. “That will use hours of the court’s time,” the magistrate said. “That just ain’t going to happen.”

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