An anti-drunk driving group says South Carolina laws are skewed too much in favor of those arrested for DUI.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s South Carolina chapter released a new report Tuesday after eight months studying DUI cases in the state’s 5th Judicial Circuit and 13th Judicial Circuit (Columbia and Greenville regions, respectively) from January to September 2016. State director Steven Burritt said the laws’ loopholes and hurdles make a DUI conviction difficult and often encourage officers or prosecutors to seek plea deals for lesser charges such as reckless driving.
South Carolina consistently has one of the highest rates of alcohol-related road deaths in the country.
Burritt said he was surprised to find that different parts of the state handle cases differently. For example, the 13th Circuit usually had prosecutors handle DUI cases, while the Midlands jurisdictions in the 5th Circuit relied on the arresting officer to prosecute in court.
“It’s not really a fair legal fight that they are going up against a seasoned defense attorney who does this for a living and (the officer) has never even been to law school” Burritt said. “That’s not exactly the equation for a fair and balanced process to find someone guilty.”
The report does shows that arresting officers actually achieve a higher conviction rate, but their cases are also much more likely to end up in a jury trial and be extended past the time MADD studied for its Tuesday report.
MADD said the report concludes “South Carolina makes the arrest investigation and prosecution of DUI cases far too difficult, which leads to the high rate of pleas to lesser charges.” The report blames the state’s dashboard camera video laws, which it insists sets a “difficult standard” unlike any other state the organization has studied. In particular, judges interpret the law as dictating an entire DUI stop must be recorded on video. The interpretation means those roadside stops which are not clearly on video (or sometimes if a driver wanders off-camera during their sobriety test) are more likely to be tossed out, the report said.
“From when the officer’s blue lights go on until the time they put the driver in the back of the car — including the entire field sobriety test process — if something goes wrong with anything in the video during that time frame, there’s almost zero chance in our state of getting a conviction,” Burritt said.
He said the group recommends that lawmakers rewrite DUI laws to make it clear the recordings are meant to be a part of the evidence in DUI cases, not the entire basis for a case proceeding. The group is also pushing state solicitors to put more prosecutors on DUI cases so that arresting officers are not the ones handling the case in court.
Burritt said MADD will continue monitoring the 5th and 13th circuits.