COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina’s drunken driving laws are tilted too far in favor of people who drive under the influence and that shows up in the willingness of authorities to take plea bargains to lesser charges, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
MADD is spending three years following all DUI cases in four counties. The group released a report Tuesday on the first eight months of monitoring cases in 2016.
State law requires careful documentation of all DUI arrests, including a nearly 1,000-word law on how traffic stops for drunken driving must be recorded on video. Missing any step, or a technical malfunction with the picture or the audio, can doom a DUI case, MADD said.
“An officer can witness and record erratic driving behavior, smell alcohol on the person, hear an admission to drinking and driving, and have their shoes thrown up upon, but if their dash cam video is lacking, the case likely will be thrown out or pled down to reckless driving,” MADD wrote in the report .
The group wants lawmakers to pass a bill changing the law so small problems that don’t alter the evidence in a traffic stop are penalized so harshly in court.
MADD also collected data on what happens to cases by following every DUI charge in the 5th Judicial Circuit (Kershaw and Richland counties) and the 13th Circuit (Greenville and Pickens counties).
One major difference in the circuits is prosecutors try DUI cases in the 13th Circuit, while arresting officers often prosecute their own cases in the 5th Circuit.
Volunteers monitoring court cases for the group found that in the 13th Circuit, 48 percent of DUI cases ended in a guilty verdict, while 44 percent were pleaded down to the lesser charge of reckless driving. In the 5th Circuit, 88 percent ended in a guilty verdict, and 12 percent of resolved cases ended in a plea deal, according to the report.
But MADD said while most DUI cases were resolved in the Upstate, more than half remained open in the 5th Circuit. The group thinks DUI suspects try to delay cases in the Midlands in hopes they will be dropped because officers may leave their jobs or be unavailable to testify.
Plea deals also create an additional problem of allowing offenders to sidestep one of MADD’s biggest recent accomplishments — a law requiring some people convicted of DUI to install a device they blow into and prove they are sober before their vehicle starts, the group said.
MADD said it will work to strengthen what is called “Emma’s Law,” so the devices are required after all DUI convictions.