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Supreme Court reinstates DUI conviction based on exceptions to the video-recording requirement

By Phillip Bantz, South Carolina Lawyers Weekly

Lack of a drunken driving arrest video or an affidavit from the arresting officer explaining the absence of the recording led a post-conviction relief judge to toss a defendant’s DUI-related convictions.

But the South Carolina Supreme Court has reinstated Nathaniel Teamer’s prison sentence after finding that the PCR judge, Brooks Goldsmith of Spartanburg County, misinterpreted the state law that outlines exceptions to the DUI video-recording requirement.

Teamer’s appellate attorney, Rauch Wise of Greenwood, said the April 13 decision erodes a provision in the law that requires law enforcement to activate video recording equipment as soon as practicable following a traffic crash and when DUI is suspected.

“The ‘as soon as practicable’ is being written out of the statute,” he added. “It was practicable to turn on the video in this case. They just didn’t do it. … ‘As soon as practicable’ is becoming less and less meaningful.”

Under the law, an arresting officer is typically required to produce a video of a DUI stop and field sobriety tests, otherwise the court must dismiss the case. But there are several exceptions built into the law.

For instance, an officer can submit a sworn affidavit certifying that the video recording equipment was broken or it was impossible to make a video in light of exigent circumstances, such as an emergency medical situation.

Spartanburg County Sheriff’s Deputy David Evett found Teamer following a car chase that ended when Teamer caused a head-on collision with another vehicle, whose driver was seriously injured. Evett did not record the aftermath of the crash or submit an affidavit.

Goldsmith determined that Teamer’s trial attorney was ineffective because he failed to file a motion to dismiss the state’s case based on the lack of a sworn affidavit. But the Supreme Court determined that Goldsmith misinterpreted the law to require an affidavit to trigger all exceptions to the video-recording statute.

Justice John Kittredge, who wrote the unanimous opinion (Chief Justice Costa Pleicones did not participate in the decision), noted that his court has previously held that an affidavit is not always required in the absence of a video.

He also cited the court’s decision last year in State v. Henkel that the videotaping requirement is excused in DUI cases involving traffic accidents “only up to the point where videotaping becomes practicable.”

Evett was responding to another officer’s alert about a fleeing suspect when he began to tail Teamer’s car and did not realize that the driver he was following was suspected of DUI, according to the decision.

Also, Teamer was driving with the headlights off and Evett could not see his vehicle until after the crash. And at that point dealing with an emergency situation took priority over videotaping the scene, the court concluded.

Teamer was charged with DUI after a South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper visited him at the hospital as part of the crash investigation. The trooper believed that Teamer was intoxicated because he was uncooperative and smelled of alcohol – a suspicion that was confirmed with blood and urine tests.

Kittredge also wrote that Evett’s failure to produce a videotape “was reasonable and excusable” under a separate, “totality of the circumstances” exception. He added, “This situation, created solely by [Teamer’s] dangerous and evasive driving, does not resemble a typical traffic stop.”

Hayley Thrift, a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General’s Office, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

John Bateman, a DUI defense attorney in Greenville who was not involved in the case but reviewed the decision, called it a “pretty measured opinion.” He said the court’s holding was based on two factors that distinguish Teamer’s case from a more common DUI arrest.

“A lot of times when you’re talking about a DUI the officer suspects DUI and pulls the car over for that. There are no real exigent circumstances,” he said. “And here, they didn’t suspect that Teamer was impaired until he was at the hospital so there was no opportunity to offer sobriety tests at the crash site.”

However, Wise asserted that Evett should have activated his cruiser’s dash cam at the crash site. He also disagreed with the Henkel decision, which excused an officer’s failure to capture his entire encounter with Gregg Henkel on a dash cam that was operating but aimed away from the officer and Henkel as he performed sobriety tests.

Wise also represented Henkel on appeal.

In Teamer’s case, the Supreme Court went on to reverse Goldsmith’s other findings related to Teamer’s conviction for first-degree burglary in connection with a home invasion.

Goldsmith had found that Teamer’s trial lawyer was ineffective because he failed to impeach one of the state’s key witnesses – a victim of the home invasion – by not introducing a criminal conviction she had for giving false information to police about a prior shooting and burglary at her home.

The Supreme Court disagreed with Goldsmith’s determination that the omission had directly affected the outcome of Teamer’s trial. The court also found that Goldsmith wrongly concluded that the trial lawyer had botched the case by failing to ask for a directed verdict on the burglary charge and for not objecting to a portion of the trial judge’s jury instructions.

Five years after Teamer’s trial, the state Supreme Court in 2012 criticized a similar instruction in State v. Daniels. In that case, the judge told jurors: “This court is of the confirmed opinion that whatever verdict you reach will represent truth and justice for all parties that are involved in this case.”

Kittredege wrote that Teamer’s trial lawyer could not be held responsible for failing to “foresee successful appellate challenges to novel questions of law.”

The Supreme Court’s decision reinstated Teamer’s 30-year sentence for felony DUI, causing great bodily injury by failing to stop for police, and first-degree burglary. If Teamer, 34, completes the sentence, he will begin serving a life sentence for shooting two people and killing one of them in a separate incident.

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