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SCHP trooper fired for alleged abuse now sued for excessive force in Myrtle Beach

Updated: May. 6, 2021 at 4:36 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - The South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper charged with third-degree assault and battery last year is now being sued for excessive force.

According to the State Law Enforcement Division, Eck had been involved in a fight with a suspected drunk driver on May 5, 2019, while he was off-duty.

The plaintiffs claim there’s more to their side of the story. Misconduct records WMBF News obtained also give more detail.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE | State trooper covering Horry County charged with assault and battery

The suit names David Eck, the S.C. Department of Public Safety, S.C. Highway Patrol, city of Myrtle Beach, and Myrtle Beach Police Department in relation to an incident that happened the same day as Eck’s alleged criminal violation.

According to the suit, plaintiff Miguel Angel De Leon Aguilar was pursued and pulled over by Eck, who was initially off-duty but then acted in his official capacity as a state highway trooper. Eck contacted Myrtle Beach police for backup, it says.

The suit claims that Eck then forcibly attacked, choked, assaulted and battered Aguilar when he made contact and took him into custody.

The other plaintiffs in the suit, Leonardo Sarmiento Ochoa and a minor (who is being represented by their parent, Beatriz Adriana Aguilar Gonzalez), approached the men to figure out what was happening. That’s when Eck pointed a firearm “in a threatening manner”, the suit alleges.

It states that Eck then “continued to choke, assault and batter Plaintiff Miguel Angel De Leon Aguilar until officers with the MBPD arrived.” Once MBPD got there, the suit says unidentified employees of the police department “did continue the assault and battery of Plaintiff Miguel Angel De Leon Aguilar.”

The plaintiffs say the involved police organizations and city of Myrtle Beach “did nothing to further investigate this wrongdoing” and are believed to have “an unwritten policy to simply ‘look the other way.’”

The suit alleges that the defendants violated the U.S. Constitution for Excessive Force & Due Process and Deliberate Indifference. It then alleges that SCDPS, SCHP, the city of Myrtle Beach, and MBPD committed negligence and gross negligence in accordance with the South Carolina Tort Claims Act.

The suit asks for damages in an amount to be determined by a jury at trial, along with attorney’s fees.

According to separation due to misconduct records obtained by WMBF News, Eck had been suspended on Feb. 12, 2020. He was then sent his termination letter on April 7, 2020, which was retroactive to the previous date.

The description of the alleged misconduct says Eck had been off-duty in his personal car with his wife on May 5, 2019, when they came across a potentially impaired driver. The driver’s name is redacted from the report. When Eck followed the driver to his house and made contact, it turned into an altercation resulting in injuries to the driver’s face.

The separation records say a neighbor had approached MBPD after officers had got to the scene and detained the driver. The neighbor told police that she had watched the whole thing, saying that Eck had punched the man multiple times, then pulled and pointed a gun at a man and child who came outside.

The driver was treated for his injuries and arrested. A few days later, the neighbor contacted the Office of Professional Responsibility, alleging excessive force. OPR referred the matter to SLED, which launched a criminal investigation.

The accounts provided by neighbors during SLED’s investigation revealed the following: one neighbor said Eck had put the driver into a headlock, and drug him on the pavement, yelling he was going to jail, and that the driver had “almost killed my family.” The neighbor said Eck punched the man multiple times in the head and alleged that when the family members came out of the house, Eck told them, “Get back, get back, I am a cop,” while pointing his gun at them.

Another neighbor came out of her house, telling investigators she stood back and watched because of Eck’s aggressiveness, and witnessed him “smash” the man’s face into the ground. When Eck allegedly pointed his gun, she went back inside.

A third witness said he’d been in his backyard, and when he went to the front he was told to “back the **** away.” The witness went back and watched the rest of the altercation.

The documents note that the three witnesses described Eck as “real pissed off” and “losing his mind.”

When the driver was interviewed, documents say he told OPR that Eck had pulled up behind him in his personal car. When he got out, Eck approached him with his hand out, as if Eck was going to shake his hand. The driver stuck out his hand to do so, and that’s when Eck grabbed it, pulled it behind his back, and “forcibly threw him to the ground.” The driver said Eck got on his back and started choking him from behind by applying pressure.

The driver said his face, neck, elbow and wrist were injured. Photographs taken were “consistent with the statements that were provided,” the narrative reads.

During Eck’s interview, the documents say he told authorities he had followed the driver to his home after suspecting that he was driving under the influence. Documents say Eck said he was wearing a purple polo shirt and khaki pants, with his badge in his wallet and his back-up service weapon concealed on his hip.

He told authorities he was “upset” and “emotional” when he confronted the driver. The document says he “admitted to pulling his backup service weapon and pointing it in the direction of the adult male and acknowledged that there was a young female standing right beside him.” Eck told authorities that he had called the driver a curse word and told the driver that “he had almost killed his family,” documents say.

The documents say Eck told SLED that during the incident, “he struck (the driver) ‘in the face with a closed fist in an attempt to gain compliance.’”

Following their investigation, SLED obtained the warrant for Eck’s arrest for third-degree assault and battery.

In an email sent to WMBF News, the plaintiffs’ attorney, HawkLaw, said they’ve been retained after the incident.

HawkLaw has been retained to represent the interests of Miguel Angel De Leon Aguilar, Beatriz Adriana Aguilar Gonzalez, as Parent and Natural Guardian of a Minor Child, and Leonardo Sarmiento Ochoa in claims arising from an incident that occurred on May 5, 2019 in Horry County within the City Limits of Myrtle Beach. As a result of this violent incident, on February 14, 2020, criminal charges were filed against Defendant David A. Eck by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division stemming from the May 5, 2019 incident, and those criminal charges are still pending. HawkLaw has no further comment at this time.

A spokesperson from SCDPS provided the following statement:

Former Trooper David Eck, who was involved in this off-duty incident, was terminated from employment with the SC Highway Patrol, effective February 12, 2020, for Improper Conduct/Conduct Unbecoming a State Employee and Arrest or Indictment for Alleged Violation of Federal or State Law. Eck was at the rank of master trooper at the time of his termination and was serving in Highway Patrol Troop 5, Post D. He had served on the Highway Patrol since January 2000. The SC Department of Public Safety has not yet been served with a lawsuit in this matter.

Sherri Iacobelli, S.C. Department of Public Safety

City of Myrtle Beach spokesperson Mark Kruea said that the city does not typically comment on pending litigation.

WMBF News also reached out to Myrtle Beach Police for comment.

Horry County 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson told WMBF News that Eck’s criminal case for the simple assault charge is pending and they are waiting on a date for his trial.

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