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Barnette: SC deserves a DUI law that works

BY BARRY BARNETTE, Guest Columnist, The State

On a regular basis, accused drunk drivers are being acquitted of what easily can become a deadly crime. In 2013, 44 percent of the traffic fatalities in our state occurred as a result of people driving after overindulging in alcohol or drugs. That’s 335 people killed needlessly, a sad statistic that makes South Carolina a national leader in this preventable and tragic category. The problem escalates when you consider the financial and emotional challenges facing the thousands of people each year who are injured in wrecks caused by drunk drivers.

Judges are dismissing DUI cases because of the unique language of our current law, which they must strictly enforce. The law requires officers to record everything from the moment their blue lights are activated through the reading of  Miranda rights.

Cases are being dismissed based on not being able to see the eyes of the suspect during a field sobriety test, not being able to hear a suspect, a driver taking too many steps and going off camera during a heel-to-toe walk, not enough light at the scene, rain on the windshield, the angle of the video camera, the position of the suspect, failure of the audio or video equipment, the officer’s tape running out during the arrest, and many other reasons that defy logic and common sense.

The recording of traffic stops was first introduced to capture bad driving and the interaction between the officer and the suspect on the side of the road. We understand the importance of presenting video evidence, but it is wrong to allow it to become the sole factor in determining the outcome of an important criminal case. The DUI videotape law is now used as a tool to take evidence away from juries. DUI cases are routinely dismissed because of the flawed statute.

Video technology is a wonderful asset to the criminal justice system, but it is not realistic to make it the determining factor in a person’s innocence or guilt. Technical glitches can’t be avoided. A suspected drunk driver’s innocence or guilt should be determined by the suspect’s driving and performance on field sobriety tests and the results of Datamaster breath tests.

Our continued high DUI fatality rate is a result of the increasing number of DUI dismissals. Nobody in our state’s criminal justice system is happy to see this. Our citizens and visitors from other states deserve better.

The S.C. Department of Public Safety reports that someone sustains an injury every two hours and someone dies every day in our state as a result of impaired driving. The problem exists all over the state, but Greenville, Charleston, Spartanburg, Richland and Horry counties are traditional leaders in this area. 

Our ranking for alcohol-related fatalities is proof that our DUI law doesn’t work.

The terrible truth about driving under the influence is that it is a crime that is easily preventable with the use of designated drivers or taxi services. However, some people are not concerned about our DUI problem and feel like taking the chance, knowing that our law is flawed.

The chance-taking drivers are gambling they probably won’t be stopped. If their luck runs out, they like their chances of beating the charge in court.

Legislation introduced in the House and Senate last month would change the law to say that video recordings must be made whenever possible; it would not allow a case to be dismissed based on an incomplete or imperfect video unless the judge finds that the failure was “wilful and malicious.” 

Amending the law will go a long way in restoring justice and confidence in our DUI law and give our citizens a law that they can respect. Without this amendment, we will continue to send out the wrong message to our citizens and the rest of the country.

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