What began as an attempt to relieve the backlog of drunk driving cases in South Carolina’s state summary courts may have exposed a major flaw in the state’s ability to build cases against drunk driving suspects and eventually convict them.
Last year, Chief Justice Jean Hoefer Toal of the South Carolina Supreme Court issued orders to judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys and courts around the state to eliminate or seriously decrease the backlog of drunk driving cases. In the four months that followed, state courts eliminated over 11,000 cases, but fewer than half resulted in convictions.
Recent news coverage of South Carolina’s potential drunk driving loopholes not only revealed the low conviction rate, but also highlighted a pattern of case dismissals that some prosecutors say was caused by recent legislation that was intended to make the punishments for drunk driving tougher.
The “loophole” problems all center on videotaped evidence. Officers use cameras mounted in the front of police cars to collect video footage of drunk driving suspects during traffic stops. These cameras cannot swivel and, in most cases, there is no second officer there to adjust the camera to keep the suspect in the frame.
In drunk driving cases, officers are also required to videotape the 20-minute interval between the arrest and the time when the suspect undergoes a breathalyzer test. Under the new laws, a judge frequently must dismiss an otherwise open-and-shut drunk driving case if any part of a suspect’s field sobriety test occurred out of view of the police car’s camera or if the wait period for the breathalyzer test wasn’t recorded for the precise amount of time required.
South Carolina is one of the most dangerous states for drunk driving, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Forty-four percent of all traffic accidents in the state involve drunk or impaired drivers, MADD says. Over 300 people in South Carolina died from drunk-driving-related accidents last year.
South Carolina also has one of the highest rates of repeat offenders when it comes to driving while intoxicated. According to MADD, over 15,000 drunk driving offenders in the state have at least three previous convictions or citations. Drunk driving costs South Carolina taxpayers approximately $1.74 billion each year. This is especially troubling when those costs include arrests, investigations and trials that result in over half of the drunk driving suspects leaving the courtroom with little or no punishment due to a videotape loophole.