A former South Carolina trooper is facing prison after pleading guilty Monday to assault charges for shooting an unarmed Columbia man he had stopped for a seatbelt violation.
Prosecutors say then-Trooper Sean Groubert stopped Levar Jones in a northwest Columbia gas station parking lot in September 2014. Dashboard camera footage from the state Department of Public Safety (DPS) shows Jones was stepping out of his car as Groubert approached. The trooper asked for the driver’s license, then suddenly yelled, “Get out of the car!” when Jones reached into his vehicle. The video shows the trooper opening fire less than two seconds after giving the order. Jones was taken to a hospital and treated for injuries after one fired bullet struck his hip.
In an incident report, Groubert said he thought Jones was reaching for a gun. The trooper was fired later that month after the State Law Enforcement Division finished its investigation and DPS Director Leroy Smith reviewed the video.
“The facts of this case are disturbing to me,” Smith said at the time. “But I believe this case was an isolated incident in which Mr. Groubert reacted to a perceived threat where there was none.”
Groubert was charged with assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature immediately after his termination. He said little Monday beyond his required answers to Circuit Judge Casey Manning. He faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced at a later date.
Judge Manning sent Groubert to jail until his sentencing. An attorney said the former trooper is taking medication for post-traumatic stress disorder after another 2012 police shooting. In that incident, a suspect led Groubert and another troopers on a high-speed chase before he exited his vehicle and fired at the officers when they trapped him in a Columbia bank’s parking lot. State investigators said the 2012 shooting was justified. The suspect in that case also survived.
Jones was in attendance at Monday’s hearing, but did not wish to comment until after Groubert is sentenced. Groubert’s family also did not wish to talk to reporters.
The 2014 shooting came amid racially-tinged tensions over the treatment of minorities by white law enforcement officers. The incident occurred less than a month after a police officer shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and just seven months before then-North Charleston officer Michael Slager shot and killed a fleeing Walter Scott following another traffic stop. Slager is currently free on bond as he awaits his trial.