Greenville prosecutor says state DUI law is a hindrance

Thirteenth Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins (left) and Steven Burritt, executive director of the South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, stand in a Greenville courtroom on August 28, 2018. Wilkins said the state's DUI laws hinders his efforts to prosecute DUI cases. Joseph Cranney/Staff

GREENVILLE — In South Carolina, a police dash camera pointed the wrong way could be considered cause for a judge to throw out a drunken driving case, even when deputies say a motorist was clearly impaired.

State law, which critics describe as one of the strictest in the country, requires videotaping virtually every step of a DUI arrest. If the suspect is out of the shot of a dashcam or body camera or the video does not work, courts could dismiss the charges.

Greenville-area prosecutors who handle nearly 1,000 DUI cases a year say that loophole in state law, along with others, hurts conviction rates that have been criticized by Mothers Against Drunk Driving in a report released this week.

The report examined the outcome of hundreds of DUI cases in the Greenville and Columbia areas and found less than half resulted in drunken driving convictions. 

An assistant solicitor handling a pending DUI case said she’s preparing arguments for why the judge should accept video into evidence because part of an arrest wasn’t captured on screen. Another Greenville prosecutor said a judge dismissed a case this year because a suspect couldn’t be seen being given Miranda rights, even though a dashcam captured the audio.

“It’s just a really odd and unreasonable requirement,” said Jennifer Tessitore, assistant solicitor for the 13th Circuit.

Technical glitches often spur prosecutors to offer suspects plea deals for lesser crimes, such as reckless driving, she said.

The issue is highlighted in a new report from the South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving that calls on S.C. leaders to bring down the state’s more than 330 drunk driving deaths a year, which ranks sixth in the nation.

A majority of misdemeanor DUI cases in the Greenville area, or roughly 49 percent, are pleaded down to a lesser charge, while roughly 45 percent result in convictions, according to the 13th Circuit’s analysis of more than 1,200 cases between 2016-17 that was released Tuesday.

That conviction rate is much lower than other major crimes, 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins told reporters Tuesday. He pointed to the state requirements on video evidence as a key hurdle.

“Our ability to (prosecute) is hindered by this current statute,” Wilkins said. “It makes it more difficult than it could, or that is allowed by other states.”

For the Columbia area, the conviction rate was 48 percent and another 48 percent of cases were pleaded down, according to MADD’s own analysis of 160 cases between 2016-17.

Defense lawyers who have handled drunken driving cases said the video requirement is no excuse for a poor conviction rate. 

“They say it’s a burdensome technicality, but there’s nothing technical about a fair process,” said Joe McCulloch, a Columbia lawyer who handles dozens of DUI cases a year. 

Then-state Rep. Ted Vick had a DUI charge thrown out in 2014 because officers failed to videotape the lawmaker being read his Miranda rights. The state has required some form of video evidence in DUI cases since 1998, said Sen. Brad Hutto, a Democratic Orangeburg attorney who worked on the legislation. 

Requiring officers to record their interactions has actually strengthened evidence in DUI cases for juries to consider, Hutto said.

“If you have two people there, it’s your word against mine,” he said. “Who are you supposed to believe? If you have a video tape, you can see who’s actually right.”

More than $220,000 in grants from the S.C. Department of Public Safety funded the MADD study. Another $72,000 grant is funding a similar study of the Charleston area, which is expected to be published next year.

Fresh concerns about impaired driving in Charleston were raised in July when a motorist careened onto a sidewalk, fatally striking an 11-year-old girl. Though the driver had no alcohol in his system, police suspected that he had used drugs before the crash.

In June, police said a woman with a blood-alcohol content nearly twice the legal limit swerved into the wrong lane, causing a head-on collision with congressional candidate Katie Arrington, who was traveling on the Savannah Highway in Charleston County.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.