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South Carolina Trooper Shooting Raises Troubling Questions

Posted on Sep 26, 2014

The shooting of an innocent motorist at a routine traffic stop by a former South Carolina Highway Trooper has raised potential concerns over the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this time related to police officers involved in prior shooting incidents.

The disastrous incident unraveled on September 4, when former Trooper Sean Groubert shot Lavar Jones at a gas station off Bush River Road in Columbia after stopping him for a seatbelt violation. Dash-cam video played at the trooper’s bond hearing on the criminal charges revealed Jones leaning back into his car to get something, when Groubert suddenly yells, runs across the camera view, and repeatedly fires at Jones. A bullet struck Jones in the hip. He was treated and released at a hospital.

It turns out Jones reached into his car to get his driver’s license. Groubert is charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature for the shooting. He faces 20 years in prison if convicted. Additionally, he may face civil charges for assault or even federal civil rights charges over this incident.

A lawyer not involved in the case but familiar with Groubert from prior court experience expressed concern that PTSD could be involved. The lawyer, Joe McCulloch of Columbia, stated Groubert always appeared professional and non-impulsive. McCulloch stated the video looked to him to show Groubert had a reaction possibly tied to PTSD.

There may be reason to support a stress disorder diagnosis. In 2012, Groubert was involved in an early-morning car chase on two Columbia interstates. That chase ended near the downtown Five Points area, where the driver used his car as a barricade while he fired a gun at officers. Troopers returned fire, taking the gunman down. The gunman was later sentenced to 25 years on two counts of attempted murder and other charges related to the incident. Afterward, Groubert underwent a critical incident stress debriefing with the Highway Patrol. Early the next year, he took a three-day post-critical incident seminar with colleagues, mental health professionals, and law enforcement chaplains. Sometime after that, the Patrol cleared him to return to active duty.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a mental health disorder which can create severe emotional reactions in people who undergo traumatic events. Military combat, natural disasters, fires, and gunplay are all incidents that have later become focal events for patients with PTSD.

Neither Groubert’s lawyer nor the prosecutor commented on whether PTSD played a role in this case. McCulloch made clear the diagnosis may not apply, and even if it does, it would not excuse the shooting, just possibly help Groubert get a lesser sentence by forming an explanation for the shooting besides intent to harm.

We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this turns out. Regardless, it is a tragedy for everyone involved. Mr. Jones has suffered terribly from an unjustified shooting, and we are extremely thankful it looks like he will recover physically. A trooper created a horrific situation for which there may be no understandable explanation. However, if PTSD played a role in it, we are hopeful the justice system will fully explore it to improve the lives of Groubert, all officers who step into the line of fire every day, and everyone in our state who struggles with mental illness.

Rob Usry
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Rob is a South Carolina personal injury and criminal defense lawyer.