STATE: DUI prosecution is cause for concern
MADD South Carolina Court Monitoring Report Focuses on DUIs Being Pleaded Down and Other Prosecution Challenges
MADD South Carolina has released its first court monitoring report focused on the 5th and 13th Judicial Circuits, providing specific data on the outcome of DUI cases in certain courts and highlighting several problems with enforcing and prosecuting DUI in South Carolina.
MADD’s data comes from court hearings from January to September 2016 stemming from DUI arrests in Richland, Kershaw, Greenville, and Pickens counties. Cases were monitored by staff or volunteers in the courtroom or online.
The 5th Judicial Circuit and 13th Judicial Circuit showed very different approaches to DUI prosecution. All of the cases monitored for the 13th Circuit were prosecuted by an attorney with the Solicitor’s Office, whereas all or most of the cases monitored for the 5th Circuit were prosecuted by the arresting officer. Other states do not allow DUI cases to be prosecuted by law enforcement officers.
For the 13th Circuit, 48 percent of the 334 cases with a final determination ended with the accused being found guilty. Another 44 percent were pleaded down to reckless driving. For the 5th Circuit, 88 percent of the 94 cases with a final determination ended with the accused being found guilty. The other 12percent were pleaded down to reckless driving.
The data suggest that arresting officers achieve DUI convictions at a higher rate. However, another possible contributing factor is the higher percentage of cases closed in Greenville County (81 percent), compared to 22 percent of cases with a final determination in Richland County and 38 percent in Kershaw County. In Richland and Kershaw counties, it was very common for the accused to request a jury trial, which extends the process and can cause complications with getting an eventual conviction.
MADD’s 2017 national court monitoring report, also released this week, shows a combined conviction rate of 68% for the jurisdictions within the 11 states that entered court monitoring data into MADD’s national database.
“We began this court monitoring project for a specific reason — everybody in the system that enforces and prosecutes DUIs felt the system was broken and even a joke,” said Steven Burritt, state director of MADD South Carolina. “The thought that there are communities where half or more of those arrested for DUI are only ending up with reckless driving charges shouldn’t make us feel safe. We can do better.”
South Carolina makes the arrest investigation and prosecution of DUI cases far too difficult, which leads to the high rate of pleas to lesser charges. The primary concern is the state’s dash cam arrest video statute that sets a difficult standard and is considered a required piece of evidence, which is unlike other states based on all discussions we have had. The law should be revised so that an imperfect video recording does not mean that there is no chance of a conviction.
“We are not against using dash cam videos in prosecuting DUIs, and our partners are generally not calling for that either,” said Burritt. “However, it is one piece of evidence. There are going to be issues with the quality of dash cam video in the middle of the night on the side of the road, maybe at a chaotic crash scene.”
MADD is also raising concerns over the practice of officers prosecuting their own cases, because it is not the focus of their training and the public has the expectation that officers are out enforcing laws rather than preparing for and prosecuting in court. They are often facing experienced DUI defense attorneys, which is a mismatch in terms of legal skills. However, the data suggest that officers seem to aggressively pursue DUI convictions and that is a positive value that should be fully embraced by whoever prosecutes the case.
“The ideal for us is a legally trained prosecutor with experience in the very complex area of DUI with the determination to see DUI convictions and not to plea down easily,” said Burritt.
MADD South Carolina has been monitoring cases in these areas since October 2016 and will continue into 2018. Through future case data, MADD will examine whether the initial trends hold. However, the following recommendations to improve the DUI prosecution and enforcement situation in South Carolina and enhance safety in our communities should be considered immediately:
--Amend the state’s dash cam video recording statute so that the other evidence in a DUI arrest can be used even when there is a problem with the video.
--Encourage more aggressive prosecution of DUI cases so that more are held accountable with the appropriate penalties and not plead down to reckless driving charges that do not keep the public as safe from repeat offenses.
--Move toward minimizing officers prosecuting their own cases in court, while preserving the commitment officers have to getting DUI convictions, as the data suggest.
--Strengthen Emma’s Law so that all convicted DUI offenders must participate in the Ignition Interlock Device program, the most effective available approach to reducing repeat offenses.
--Encourage all courts to allow public observation of the final determination of cases in court, as opposed to all agreements being submitted out of public view only.
About Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Founded in 1980 by a mother whose daughter was killed by a drunk driver, Mothers Against Drunk Driving® (MADD) is the nation’s largest nonprofit working to end drunk driving, help fight drugged driving, support the victims of these violent crimes and prevent underage drinking. MADD has helped to save more than 350,000 lives, reduce drunk driving deaths by more than 50 percent and promote designating a non-drinking driver. MADD’s Campaign to Eliminate Drunk Driving® calls for law enforcement support, ignition interlocks for all offenders and advanced vehicle technology. MADD has provided supportive services to nearly one million drunk and drugged driving victims and survivors at no charge through local victim advocates and the 24-Hour Victim Help Line 1-877-MADD-HELP. Visit www.madd.org or call 1-877-ASK-MADD.