COLUMBIA - A S.C. House panel passed a DUI-related bill known as "Emma's Law" on Thursday, but not before changing the measure in a way that advocates and victims' families said weakens it.
The bill requires that drunk drivers charged with a DUI install an ignition interlock in their car, which requires a driver to blow into a machine to ensure they have not been drinking before they drive. A spate of high-profile DUI cases this year has elevated the bill's profile, which has already passed the S.C. Senate.
The law is named after Columbia's Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old killed by a drunk driver on New Year's Day 2012. The measure will now be considered by another committee. It is expected to receive a vote in the House this year, and the law's supporters are hopeful it has the votes to pass.
The House panel took testimony from DUI victims' family members and medical experts. Dozens of people who packed the hearing room wore pink for Emma and red to signify they were related to someone who had been hurt or killed in a drunk-driving crash.
Advocates and health professionals said the interlock systems are a common-sense approach that has worked in other states and would save lives in South Carolina.
"I will not get to walk her down the aisle one day and that hurts," David Longstreet, Emma's father, told the House panel. "This bill will save lives. It could have saved Emma."
The House Criminal Laws Subcommittee made several changes to the bill, S.137, sponsored by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Columbia. Only those convicted of a DUI - not charged as in Lourie's original bill - would have to install the interlock device.
Also, the law would only apply to those who are found to have a blood alcohol content of .15 or higher - not .12, as in the original bill. That new standard is nearly twice the legal limit of .08. House members also added a provision that allows for those who are required to install the interlock devices the right to a hearing to contest the restriction.
The new limit of .15 can mean a person is drunk enough to vomit and has less muscle control than normal, according to the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Web site.
Longstreet said after the hearing that he was disappointed in the changes made by House members but that the most important thing was that the bill came one step closer to fruition.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, the House minority leader and a criminal defense attorney, said that the BAC number is arbitrary. He also blasted detractors who said he and other criminal defense attorneys have held up the bill.
"I am absolutely positive this is going to pass," Rutherford said.
Sen. Lourie, who attended the hearing, said the House changes "weakened" the bill, but he hopes to strengthen it in time to pass this year.
"This will have significant, very measurable impact," he said.
Reach Jeremy Borden at 708-5837.