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Safety: For sheriff’s ICE unit, traffic stops are never routine
By Charles Swenson
The driver cried when Sgt. Chis Geno handed her a ticket.
He climbed back into his Chevy Tahoe and checked his copy. She was right. It was her birthday. “I’m just trying to keep you alive until your next birthday,” he told the woman.
Geno is the sergeant in charge of the ICE unit at the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office. He was driving south on Highway 17 Saturday night when he saw the white VW Passat in his rearview mirror as it weaved through traffic. The radar on his SUV has a rear antenna. He switched it on as the VW came up behind him. “Got you,” Geno said. The radar showed 75 mph in the 60 mph zone.
He waited for the VW to pass. It stayed behind the SUV. “We see that a lot,” Geno said. “People think if they don’t pass you they won’t get caught.” He switched on his blue lights.
The VW stopped in the passing lane behind the deputy’s SUV. Cars in the other lane stopped, too. Geno jumped out of the SUV and ordered the driver to pull over to the shoulder. As Geno followed in the SUV, the VW stopped short, leaving him blocking the highway. He jumped out again and told the driver to pull up. Traffic began to move along the highway.
As Geno copied the information from the woman’s license onto the ticket, he didn’t realize her date of birth was also the day’s date. That wouldn’t have helped her. Speeds over 70 mph raise the risk of dying in an accident exponentially, he said.
“I hate it when people write about ‘a routine traffic stop,’ ” Geno said. “There’s nothing routine about a traffic stop.”
The Intensified Criminal Enforcement unit does a lot of traffic stops. On two days last week, that’s how they spent almost half of two 12-hour shifts. “It’s the most dangerous thing we do,” Deputy Jason Dozier said. “It’s the unknown. You never know why someone is speeding.”
The unit wrote over 1,500 tickets on Waccamaw Neck in the last 12 months, according to the sheriff’s office. About 80 percent were for speeding.
There are four deputies on the ICE team. Two have dogs that are trained to sniff out drugs, track and apprehend suspects. The deputies usually work in the same area. They back up and supplement the work of patrol deputies, but move throughout the county. They have a wider range of missions as well, including drug enforcement and surveillance.
Dozier is one of the team’s dog handlers. Spike, a 2-year-old Dutch shepherd, rides in the back seat of his Tahoe. The other handler was on vacation, so
Spike was the go-to dog for the weekend. On Friday, they were on traffic patrol along Kent Road near Andrews. There had been complaints about speeding on the road, which runs parallel to Highway 521. The limit is 45 mph. Dozier said he gives drivers some leeway on wide open stretches. He will also knock a violation down from 2 to 4 points, saving a driver about $100 in fines. But he doesn’t shake hands.
“I might do a fist bump,” he said.
The deputies aren’t just looking for speeders. Dozier stopped a Chevy Malibu with three air fresheners hanging inside and a broken taillight. He watched the driver watching him as he checked the man’s license and registration. It was just a speeding case.
Dozier didn’t need to call Spike when he stopped a Toyota a little while later. He could smell the marijuana himself in spite of the over-sized air freshener hanging from the mirror. The driver was coming from Williamsburg County to pick up his wife from work. He had about a gram of pot wrapped up in a convenience store receipt.
The man got a speeding ticket and a citation for “simple possession.” His wife watched from a parking lot across the street. She drove home.
“It’s not just speeding,” Geno said. “It’s drugs and guns and other things.” On Saturday afternoon, he stopped a teen driving a Kia Sorrento for speeding on Bypass 17. The Kia smelled of pot. The teen and his passenger said they didn’t know anything about it.
It took a few more minutes before Dozier and Geno located the source of the odor. They pried open an ashtray packed with the remains of smoked joints. Geno tipped it into a Dumpster.
From there, the team worked its way along the Waccamaw Neck, checking back roads and Highway 17. The raised highway median in Pawleys Island has forced the team to alter its tactics. With fewer places to turn around and more traffic lights, it’s tougher to catch up with a car that’s speeding in the opposite direction. The ICE unit has two laser speed guns they use from parked SUVs. The lasers make it easier to pick a speeding vehicle out of heavy traffic.
Catching up with them can still be a challenge on a divided highway. Someone called 911 with a report of a reckless driver Saturday. The caller was following the blue Dodge south on Highway 17 from Hagley. There was a state trooper and a patrol deputy in the area. The ICE team also joined the search.
The Dodge turned around at Prince George. It was stopped by Deputy Ken Higgins, an ICE member, outside Pawleys Plantation. Soon there were four sets of blue lights behind the Dodge.
The driver said he had come from Marlboro County to pick up his mother at Belin Methodist Church. She’d been on a church trip to Israel. The man said he was trying to find the church and may have run off the road looking at his GPS. He also handed over a lockbox containing methadone he said was prescribed for an addiction to pain medication that followed a series of joint replacements.
The man passed a field sobriety test and drove off with directions to Belin.
“You couldn’t make up a story like that,” Geno said.
At the same time, the deputies are paid to be wary. With experience, they learn to read the “tells” that let them know someone’s story doesn’t add up, Higgins said. “Everybody’s nervous at a traffic stop,” he said, but some people’s hearts beat so fast “you can see their shirt move.” Just talking with drivers about where they’re going and what they’re doing can discover inconsistencies. Drivers often produce drugs and alcohol simply because the deputies ask.
Higgins said he was surprised to hear that people think the Georgetown County Sheriff’s Office doesn’t enforce speeding laws. He produced a bank bag with two stacks of tickets he wrote in January.
Of the 1,548 tickets the team wrote on Waccamaw Neck since January 2015, 980 were in the Pawleys Island area.
Dozier and Higgins also serve on the marine unit at the sheriff’s office. They launched a jon boat to help in the rescue while Geno and Sgt. Clark Ard, the patrol supervisor, joined the Midway crew. Two firefighters in wetsuits were prepared to wade through the pluff mud if the deputies could ferry them across the channel. But the rising tide freed the kayakers and they met the jon boat in the creek.
By the time the ICE team got to Georgetown, city police had already joined SLED Agent Brandi Graham on her rounds. After two stops in the city, they headed to Long Branch, a club in Santee. It was after midnight and there was a fire burning outside the club, which is housed in a mobile home. Ten customers were joined by three deputies and Graham, who reviewed the owner’s records.
A shotgun and a semi-automatic pistol were behind the bar. The deputies unloaded the guns and checked their serial numbers against a criminal database before returning them.
A couple danced in front of a jukebox. It was their 10th anniversary. The husband told deputies he will be 60 soon. He took off his cap to show a gray Mohawk haircut. The jukebox and a television were the only electric lights in the bar. A propane heater stood in a corner.
The last two clubs on Graham’s list were shut, probably for good, to judge from the lack of tire tracks or other activity. So the unit moved on to Sampit. Residents had complained about drug dealing from cars driving through the area. The three black Tahoes rolled down the empty rural roads. The occasional porch light or street light split the dark.
There were no cars or dealers in Sampit. The deputies weren’t disappointed. The goal of the team is to be proactive, Geno said.