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Grand jury to decide the fate of Atlantic Beach mayor's job

Whether the mayor of Atlantic Beach will keep her seat after Friday night's arrest on a hit-and-run charge will be determined by first a grand jury, then the governor, officials said Saturday.

Atlantic Beach Mayor Retha Pierce, 59, spent 16 hours at J. Reuben Long Detention Center before she was released about 2 p.m. Saturday on $2,200 bond, jail officials said.

According to an Atlantic Beach Police incident report, a white Chevrolet Trailblazer sideswiped another vehicle on U.S. 17 inside the town limits about 1 p.m. Friday. Immediately after the crash, the sport utility vehicle stopped and an "unknown subject" got out, examined the damage, then got back in and drove away, but several witnesses there told police that Pierce was the driver, the report states.

When officers found Pierce driving in town several hours later, they saw damage to the front of her SUV and paint chips that matched the color of the car she is alleged to have hit, Chief Randy Rizzo said Friday. She was also charged with having no insurance, jail officials said.

Pierce has not taken phone calls from The Sun News since the crash, but told a local TV station that the other car hit hers, and that she planned to report the crash Monday.

Pierce was booked under Section 1220 of the state's traffic laws, jail officials said, which requires that any driver involved in a crash immediately stop at the crash site and - if there are no injuries - give the other driver his or her name, address and driver's license information. The driver "may temporarily leave the scene to report the accident to the proper authorities," the law states.

The charge, a misdemeanor, carries a penalty of up to a year in jail and between $100 and $5,000 in fines.

Her case will next be reviewed by the 15th Circuit Solicitor's Office and, depending on their findings, it will go before a grand jury, said Deputy Solicitor Fran Humphries. If the grand jurors indict Pierce, prosecutors will forward the case to the governor's office for review, as they do with all charges against public officials, Humphries said.

The governor has the power to suspend any public official indicted on a "crime of moral turpitude," said Joel Sawyer, a spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford. That includes most felonies, but also some misdemeanors, he said.

"We'll just have to see what the indictment says, when and if one is handed down," he said.

The hit-and-run charge makes the third criminal case pending against the mayor. In December 2007, she was charged with resisting arrest during a traffic stop. The trial on that charge led to a hung jury last summer and was rescheduled for early 2009, but was postponed when she was rushed to the hospital for health problems on the morning of the trial.

In February, Pierce was arrested on a trespassing charge at town hall after allegedly refusing police orders to leave during an argument with staff members. She has requested a jury trial in that case, and meanwhile sued town officials over it, calling it part of their conspiracy to discredit her as mayor.