September 23, 2023

A woman mistakenly identified as a Walmart shoplifting suspect spent a night in a South Carolina jail after she was arrested at her home in front of her young children, according to a newly filed lawsuit.

Courtney Williams, of Florence, was taken into custody on Nov. 22 by authorities who accused her of stealing two Apple laptops from a Walmart in Florence County on Aug. 29, 2022, she told McClatchy News.

However, Williams never stepped inside Walmart that day and was nowhere near it, according to state Rep. Marvin Pendarvis, who is Williams’ attorney.

After Florence police officers met with Walmart employees and reviewed surveillance footage of the August 2022 theft, they concluded Williams was the suspect seen in the footage, according to a complaint filed Sept. 18 in Florence County Court of Common Pleas.

Following her arrest, she was detained in jail for about 12 hours, feeling shocked and confused.

“I was praying when I was there and I was crying because I was upset, because I knew that that wasn’t me,” she said.

Although the charges against her were officially dismissed in January, “the damage had already been done,” a news release from Pendarvis Law LLC said.

In addition to public humiliation and emotional trauma, Williams lost her job as a result of her false arrest, the release said.

Now she’s suing the city of Florence and its police department on several causes of action including negligence, civil assault and false arrest.

Pendarvis told McClatchy News “if the police had done their proper due diligence in trying to ascertain the true culprit,” Williams would never have been arrested.

“That’s a situation where a mistake is unacceptable,” he said. “You put an innocent person’s life in jeopardy, a livelihood in jeopardy because of a mistake…That’s inexcusable and everyone needs to be held responsible because of that.”

The city and the Florence Police Department declined to comment on the lawsuit, as they cannot comment on pending litigation, Capt. Mike Brandt told McClatchy News on Sept. 19.

McClatchy News also contacted Walmart for comment on Sept. 19 and didn’t receive an immediate response.

‘Pulled away from her children’

Officers arrested Williams three months after the August 2022 Walmart theft when she called to make a police report about an unrelated incident, she told McClatchy News.

Officers told her to step outside because they had a warrant out for her arrest, according to Williams, who said felt confused, “betrayed and unsafe” as her two young daughters screamed and cried while she was detained.

Pendarvis said his client was essentially “pulled away from her children.”

Ultimately, Williams was released from custody on Nov. 23, the day after her arrest, according to the complaint.

“The actions of the defendants were objectively unreasonable under the circumstances and were undertaken intentionally with malice, willfulness, and reckless indifference to the rights and safety of (Williams),” the complaint says.

Williams said she decided she wanted to bring the matter to court immediately following her release, when she realized her “whole world and life” was turned “upside down.”

The lawsuit seeks to recover damages and relief for Williams.

When asked what she hopes will come out of the case, Williams said she wants to hold the defendants accountable.

Williams, who is Black, also said she hopes that people who work in law enforcement “understand that every person is not bad and you can’t go based off of skin color” and that “they have to thoroughly investigate and make sure that they’re doing their job.”

“They failed me and my children,” she said.

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