Gunfire leaves 1 dead

A bullet hole marks the rear panel of a Pontiac Bonneville that also was splattered with blood and shattered glass. The car was parked on Ranger Drive during a North Charleston shootout Thursday.

Thousands of dollars in traffic ticket fines have been lost in Dorchester County courts, and the cases dismissed, in part because of state troopers who left the S.C. Highway Patrol before the cases went to court.

The patrol also has shifted its focus away from traffic enforcement and toward DUI and other potentially deadly violations.

Since the recession began in 2008, one in every three troopers who was assigned to the region that includes the county has left the force. Hiring freezes have kept those positions vacant. In that time, the number of tickets written per year has dropped by one-fourth.

Nobody has hard numbers on how many tickets have been dismissed at trial because the issuing trooper had left the force. But Dorchester County Chief Magistrate Maite Murphy estimated that at one point it was some 200 tickets per month.

Revenue from the fines is split between the court and the state. As the county began budgeting for the 2011-12 fiscal year, the magistrate's court budget reflected a revenue drop from $955,500 to $891,500, County Administrator Jason Ward said. Not all that lost revenue would be because of dismissed tickets, but the loss is included in the number.

It's enough of a hit that Lee Moulder, the county's budget and finance director, pointed it out in a monthly financial report to County Council.

The holes in force and fines are occurring across the state. The Highway Patrol has lost nearly 100 of its formerly 900-trooper force since 2008.

Troopers have not been laid off because of state budget cuts; they are being lost to attrition. They are moving to jobs in the military and other law enforcement agencies that pay better than the state and where raises still are being given, said Mark Keel, director of the S.C. Department of Public Safety. "We can't put them back as quickly as they leave because budgets have been uncertain."

The drop in the number of tickets written isn't solely because of the loss of troopers, he said. The department has been focusing on driver violations that can cause wrecks, particularly fatalities, including driving while impaired. Those cases take up more time in court and keep troopers off the road longer.

In the three years that the number of troopers dropped by nearly 100, the number of DUI tickets rose by more than one-third, to 15,894 per year.

The number of fatal wrecks has dropped about the same percentage, to 781 in 2010. Troopers also have been writing more warning tickets for lesser offenses.

"What we're trying to do is change driver behavior, not penalize (those) drivers," Keel said.

Trooper staffing affects more than revenue or tickets. In the six-county Highway Patrol region that includes Dorchester, Berkeley and Charleston counties, the average wait time for police to respond to traffic wrecks has increased from less than 25 minutes in 2008 to more than 27 minutes in 2010.

"It's been tough. There are so many wrecks there's no time to do enforcement," Keel said. "If we didn't have help from sheriff's departments and chiefs of police, the wait time would be longer."

Despite the state budget woes, there is a little help on the way: The Highway Patrol Academy is about to graduate 35 troopers.