DPS finds faults with CPD's handling of Benjamin investigation

Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin
Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin
Benjamin's car after the wreck (Source: CPD)
Benjamin's car after the wreck (Source: CPD)
Rubens' car after the wreck (Source: CPD)
Rubens' car after the wreck (Source: CPD)

By Logan Smith - bio | email

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - A Department of Public Safety review of the Columbia Police Department's investigation of Mayor-elect Steve Benjamin's traffic accident found that police made several errors on "technical aspects" of the probe.

The police department, whose former chief was fired over his handling of the investigation, responded Friday that their failures did not change the ultimate conclusions on the wreck.

Benjamin was heading to a news interview around 5:45am on April 21, just hours after he was elected mayor, when his Mercedes SUV slammed into a Toyota driven by Deborah Rubens.

In police dashcam video released with the full report, you see an officer approaching the accident around 5:45am. Just before the cruiser arrives, the video switches to daylight video of the scene.  It's unclear why that happens.

CPD also released audio of Benjamin being interviewed at the scene. "I do not know what my speed was prior to the accident, but I was traveling at a constant and reasonable speed for Gervais Street," he said.

In the same statement, Benjamin says he "did not make nor receive any phone calls. I did not send nor check any text messages. I did check my voicemail and listened to messages using my speaker function on my cell phone."

On the audio tape, Benjamin also discussed his headlights. "After the collision I got out," he said. "There were a couple individuals right across the street, one woman and one man in particular. She told me the lights weren't on. I don't know if they were or what. It's my wife's car. I rarely drive it. I hardly drive it anymore."

According to the DPS report, Columbia police said Rubens should have seen Benjamin's SUV coming without headlights on and yielded to Benjamin. DPS' accident investigation team disagreed, saying they expected the average driver to have acted the same as Rubens.

In addition, DPS said CPD failed to test Benjamin's headlights to see if they had been on, failed to calculate Rubens' acceleration rate or the collision speed, and did not address human factors such as fatigue.

DPS also called the investigating officers' experience into question, saying "it takes not only training in the mathematics and engineering principles involved, but also years of practical hands-on field experience" to properly investigate a wreck.

Benjamin admitted to sleep deprivation as well as having had an alcoholic drink at his victory celebration the night before. Benjamin told officers he had gotten less than three hours of sleep in between the victory party and the wreck. He also said he took a "couple sips from a congratulatory vodka tonic" as well as "one Malibu drink with dinner."  Multiple Columbia police officers noted that Benjamin did not appear impaired at all, and the DPS report did not fault CPD for failing to give a breathalyzer.

The DPS report contained another detail of the accident which has not been made public until now, that Rubens tested positive for marijuana. The report stated that a hospital positively tested Rubens for marijuana, but didn't quantify how much. DPS assumed Rubens had used marijuana within three days of the accident because of the positive result, but said since there was no way of telling how much or how recently she had used it, the test has no integrity.

Interim Columbia Police Chief C.E. Burke said minor technical errors are common in traffic accident investigations, and that the citations given to Benjamin and Rubens are "appropriate and fully supported by the evidence gathered during the Columbia Police Department's investigation."

Benjamin was cited for not having his headlights on. Rubens was cited for driving without insurance. "DPS concurred with the ultimate conclusions reached by the Columbia Police Department and the uniform traffic summonses that were issued as a result of that investigation," Burke said.

"Mr. Benjamin is pleased the review is completed, the matter is concluded and the mayor-elect is focused on doing the job the people of Columbia elected him to do," responded Benjamin's spokesman, Michael Wukela.

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