After 28 months a court clown named Scott R. Hixson, whose official title is Chief Deputy Solicitor for the Fifteenth Judicial Circuit of South Carolina, has dropped 107 criminal charges brought against members of the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club in Horry County and Myrtle Beach.
The charges resulted from a criminal investigation called “Operation Red Harvest” which began in 2010 and was intended to punish its victims for the non-crime of belonging to a motorcycle club. At the self-congratulatory press conference in April 2012, Saundra Rhodes of the Horry County Police Department modestly allowed, “We believe this will have a significant impact on the Hell’s Angels. In my 18 years with the department I’ve never seen a grand jury investigation that netted 226 indictments. This is a pretty big deal.”
The point of the case was always to use the state’s exclusive power to prosecute in order to obviate the basic, ancient and almost universally recognized right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Greg Hembree, who preceded Hixson as official court clown, said as much when he announced the wildly overblown case that led to raids on 11 locations and charged 34 people with the 226 crimes that ranged from illegal tattooing to lynching. “It’s going to take up a lot of their time and energy and resources to defend these charges,” Hembree bragged.
Thirteen months after the press conference court clown in chief Jimmy Richardson, whose official title is Solicitor for the 15th Circuit of South Carolina, dropped more than 100 of the charges. “What we did was we went through…we looked at each charge individually, and the stuff that we couldn’t prove, we dismissed it” Richardson said.
Yesterday, defense attorney John M. Hilliard, III announced that all the remaining charges had finally been dismissed. “These cases represent the entirety of criminal charges lodged by the Horry County Police Department two and a half years ago against members of the local chapter of the motorcycle club,” Hilliard wrote. “All charges were thrown out after prosecutors carefully examined each case against each individual.”
“There was never any credible evidence against any of my clients, a fact that I have repeatedly pointed out to the prosecution since the time of the original arrests,”
Hilliard wrote, “No drugs or other evidence of the commission of crime were found during any of these (April 2012) raids or searches of Hells Angels’ properties. Police officers seized money, clothing and Hells Angels memorabilia, business records, computers and the like during their sweeps nonetheless.”
Property was returned after Hilliard pointed out to the prosecution that valid search warrants limit seizure of property to evidence of criminal activity. “Warrants do not allow law enforcement to go on fishing expeditions to collect trophies,” Hilliard said.
“Hembree was right,” Hilliard continued. “It has taken a lot of time, energy and resources to defend against what have proven to be baseless charges. That was all time, energy and resources that my clients would otherwise have used to pay family bills. This has all been a real financial hardship on everyone who was arrested in this police sweep. My clients were required to pay for surety bonds in excess of $1,000,000.00 in this case.”
Not Criminal Gang
“The Myrtle Beach Chapter of the Hells Angels is not a ‘criminal gang’ by any definition of the word,” Hilliard went on. “It is a motorcycle club, nothing more. Nonetheless, because of these arrests the names of my clients are likely to end up being included on the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division watch list.”
The SLED list stores information about alleged “criminal gangs” on a separate, loosely regulated computer registry. Under existing rules, a naked, unsubstantiated allegation by a law enforcement officer can result in someone’s name being on that list. Hilliard said those files, “are shared with other law enforcement agencies around the State and country and with federal authorities. Among other things, being listed on the ‘criminal gang’ registry can result in a person being put on ‘no fly’ or ‘terrorist watch’ lists circulated by Homeland Security.”
Hilliard said, “Members of the club are now deciding whether to pursue various civil actions because of these arrests, including removal of their names and that of the Myrtle Beach Chapter of Hells Angels from the criminal gang registry.”