Prosecutor: Bluffton police sought wrong charge in fatal crash

June 9, 2011 

Andrew Shane Harper

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Beaufort County's top prosecutor says his office told Bluffton police not to file felony driving-under-the-influence charges against a Hardeeville man after a fatal crash because there wasn't enough evidence to support the charge.

Bluffton police filed two counts of felony DUI against Andrew Shane Harper on May 5 although Harper's blood alcohol content was under the legal limit for intoxication, according to a Bluffton Police Department incident report.

Harper, 22, and three friends were on Old Palmetto Bluff Road at about 7 p.m. when the car ran off the road, sideswiped a tree, struck another tree and landed upside down in a drainage ditch. One passenger died and another was severely injured.

Both DUI charges will be dropped, according to the Solicitor's Office. Prosecutors are expected to present the case to a grand jury June 23 for indictment on one count of reckless homicide, a felony that carries up to 10 years in prison, according to the office.

Conviction on the felony DUI charges could have brought as many as 15 years in prison for each charge.

Harper's blood alcohol content measured .058, the incident report states.

According to South Carolina law, if blood alcohol content is more than .05 percent but less than .08 percent, there must be additional evidence to prove a person is under the influence.

Solicitor Duffie Stone said Thursday that prosecutors told investigators they needed more evidence of intoxication before Harper was charged. Prosecutors also urged officers to wait for the results of an investigation by the S.C. Highway Patrol accident reconstruction team, Stone said.

"In this case we knew the facts and we gave the advice, but it wasn't taken," he said. "Most of the time the system works very well."

On May 10, after the charges were filed, Stone sent a letter to Bluffton Police Chief David McAllister outlining the law and asked police to provide additional evidence of intoxication.

McAllister said Thursday he knew investigators were working with the Solicitor's Office, but that he wasn't aware of any disagreements between the agencies.

"I don't routinely get that involved in charges unless an officer comes to me for specific guidance," he said. "All charging decisions rest with the police department. We had enough probable cause to take the evidence to a judge and an arrest warrant was granted."

McAllister said Harper smelled of alcohol after the crash and investigators believed other factors -- statements from witnesses, for example -- would prove Harper had been drinking that night. Ultimately, police didn't get strong statements from witnesses saying Harper had been drinking, he said.

"You have to adjust charges from time to time," McAllister said. "It would have been a difficult DUI case to make, but we were hoping it was going to come together. You want to bring justice to the victims' families, but you have to charge appropriately."

After the crash, Harper told police he and three friends decided to take his car for a "joy ride" on Palmetto Bluff's curving roads. He was driving between 55 and 60 miles per hour and started to pass a group of people walking on the side of Old Palmetto Bluff Road when a deer jumped in front of his Chevrolet Cobalt, causing him to swerve, according to the accident report.

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