Mount Pleasant catches up with camera law

Video cameras now record traffic stops, such as this one at the foot of the Ravenel Bridge from Mount Pleasant Police Department traffic officer Pfc. A.J. Santos' cruiser.

Wade Spees // The Post and Courier

A video camera records as Mount Pleasant traffic officer Pfc. A.J. Santos assists with a one-car accident on Rifle Range Road on Thursday night.

MOUNT PLEASANT -- With handgun drawn and aimed, officer Joe Zeitner shouts commands at the driver and passenger of a Ford Escape.

"Show me your hands! Let me see your hands!" Zeitner yells.

He has backup from officers A.J. Santos and Chris Fieldings.

Zeitner's relatively peaceful overnight patrol for drunken driving suddenly has become a high-adrenaline "felony stop" of auto burglary suspects.

Responding to the officers' instructions, the men hang their arms out windows. The passenger, a black man with dreadlocks, exits the car with hands raised, backs slowly toward police and gets on his knees. After he is safely cuffed, the same thing happens for the other suspect, who is white and clean-cut looking.

Zeitner briskly approaches the car with his gun raised for protection and peers inside. Satisfied that the vehicle is empty, he puts away his weapon.

A felony stop is rare for Zeitner, who with Santos patrols overnight looking for drivers who are impaired because of alcohol, drugs or both.

The town is a state leader for DUI arrests. Last year, it took 437 people to jail for drinking and driving, a

12 percent increase over the previous year.

But as aggressive as the town is in arresting drunken drivers, it also has been criticized in the past for failing to have enough dashboard cameras that would help ensure their cases stand up in court.

'Safety of our citizens'

Zeitner said police have made about 200 impaired driving arrests this year. Another one happened about 30 minutes after the felony stop when Zeitner and Santos administer a sobriety test to an 18-year-old man who was reported to be weaving in traffic.

The DUI suspect has problems walking a straight line for Santos. Zeitner shines a light in the man's eyes, but his pupils remain dilated. A digital camera in a patrol car videotapes the officers and the suspect. Based on their observations, Santos and Zeitner decide to arrest the driver about 12:30 a.m.

From 1998 to 2008, Mount Pleasant had 2,796 DUI arrests, the most of any municipality in the state. So far this year, police have made about 200 DUI arrests, he said.

"One of our major goals is the safety of our citizens," said Police Chief Harry Sewell.

The majority of driving fatalities involve drinking, he said.

The state Department of Public Safety this month recognized the town police department as Agency of the Year for DUI arrests and education.

Sewell said DUI arrests have been made as early in the day as 10 a.m.

"We've had some sloppy drunks behind the wheel of the car in the middle of the day," he said.

However, not all municipal court convictions for DUI have held up on appeal. The South Carolina Supreme Court recently sided with the defendant in a town DUI case because her field sobriety test and arrest weren't videotaped.

The defense attorney handling the case hailed the ruling as a landmark decision that could apply to "hundreds, if not thousands" of pending DUI cases statewide.

"This thing is huge," said Diedreich P. von Lehe III, a Charleston lawyer.

Conviction reversed

Treva Shue Roberts challenged her 2007 municipal court jury trial conviction for DUI. The Circuit Court reversed her conviction and dismissed the DUI charge. The town appealed the ruling, but the Supreme Court agreed this month that the Circuit Court made the correct decision.

The high court said the town had not lived up to its obligation to install DPS-issued dashboard cameras to tape DUI stops. The officer who stopped Roberts was driving a patrol car that was not equipped with a camera. The backup patrol car did not have a camera.

In 1998, the General Assembly approved a law that requires police to tape all field sobriety tests and DUI arrests once a patrol car is equipped with a dash camera. No deadline for installing cameras in the cars is spelled out in the legislation.

"We find the town's prolonged failure to equip its patrol vehicles with video cameras defeats the intent of the Legislature," Supreme Court Justice Donald W. Beatty wrote for the court.

At the time of Robert's arrest, seven patrol cars were equipped with cameras. In 2009, the town requested 59 additional cameras from DPS.

Von Lehe said the ruling means that DUI arrests without an accompanying videotape are as a matter of law dismissed.

"The government itself is required to follow the law. And that's precisely what the Supreme Court says in this opinion. This was a win for all citizens of South Carolina," von Lehe said.

Charleston County Court of Common Pleas Judge J.C. Nicholson Jr. reversed Roberts' conviction and dismissed the DUI charge.

S.C. provision

Mount Pleasant Solicitor Ira Grossman said the town appealed Nicholson's decision because it believes that a person should not be freed from a DUI conviction or charge because of a technicality.

"The people who lose are the innocent drivers on the roadways of South Carolina. The charge should not be dismissed just because you don't have a camera," Grossman said.

South Carolina is the only state with the videotaping requirement for DUI stops, he said.

"I think cameras are better, but why don't the other states have such a provision?" he said.

The high court decision won't have much impact in Mount Pleasant because the town has since placed cameras in nearly every patrol vehicle, Grossman said.

"They are able to videotape all DUIs at this point," he said.

A few pending cases may be affected by the ruling.

The town argued that it couldn't tape Roberts' arrest because the state DPS had not given it enough cameras. The town also argued that it was under no obligation to either request the free cameras from DPS or to purchase them, according to court documents.

The high court disagreed because, using that line of reasoning, the law could be circumvented indefinitely, its ruling states.

"We find the town's explanation is disingenuous given its significantly higher number of DUI arrests as compared to smaller municipalities," the ruling says.

Vehicles equipped

The DPS uses DUI statistics to determine who is first in line for video cameras.

"We find the town's protracted failure to equip its patrol vehicles with video cameras, despite its 'priority' ranking, defeats the intent of the Legislature and violates the statutorily-created obligation to videotape DUI arrests," the high court ruled.

Von Lehe said Roberts was pleased with the ruling but had no comment.

DPS spokesman Sid Gaulden said 2,076 in-car cameras have been issued to city, county and university police departments. The DPS has issued 57 dashboard cams to Mount Pleasant.

"Many agencies have in-car video systems that were purchased with their own funding," Gaulden said.

As part of 1998 DUI reform, the DPS became responsible for purchasing, maintaining and supplying all videotaping equipment for every law enforcement vehicle used for traffic stops.

North Charleston Police spokesman Spencer Pryor said all DUI arrests are recorded. If an officer who makes a DUI stop does not have a camera, another officer in a patrol car with a dash camera is sent to the scene to tape the arrest, he said.

Charleston police videotape DUI arrests when the car is equipped with a video camera, said spokesman Charles Francis. DPS said the department has sent 19 state-issued cameras to Charleston police.