DUI program that works needs renewed state funding

info@islandpacket.comJanuary 3, 2013 

This holiday season produced a bumper crop of drunken-driving arrests in Beaufort County.

Between mid-December and the end of the year, more than 50 DUI arrests were made in the county, including 14 on New Year's Eve alone. In a five-day span ending on Christmas, state and local officers made 16 DUI arrests in the county, compared to six the year before.

At the same time, news comes from Columbia that a measure that has been moving DUI cases through the judicial system more efficiently might not get renewed funding.

The program pays for a lawyer within prosecutors' offices statewide to handle DUI cases in court. It has been a big improvement over the traditional practice of law enforcement officers being pitted against attorneys who specialize in DUI defense.

"(Defense attorneys) file numerous motions to try to get the case dismissed, and it is hard for an officer to be up on the case and know how to argue motions and that kind of thing on their own," said David Ross, executive director of the state Prosecution Coordination Commission.

The S.C. Office of Highway Safety links an emphasis on DUI enforcement to a significant improvement in public safety. In 2010, 44 percent of all driving deaths in South Carolina involved alcohol-impaired drivers, the highest percentage in the country. A year later, that number fell to 38 percent, the seventh-highest rate in the country.

The prosecuting attorneys also helped clear large backlogs of DUI cases in jurisdictions locally and statewide in 2011.

Beaufort County courts made headway in reducing a backlog of almost 500 drunken-driving cases after Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal ordered the state's local courts to address the problem.

"I saw the attorney spend every minute of every day gathering discovery for these cases, but I'd like to see us take an overall more active role," 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said at the time. "I'd like to see more lawyers put on the project."

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said it helped to have a single attorney assigned to the DUI cases.

"It's not healthy to have cases sit on the docket for months," Tanner said. "The longer the case sits, the harder it is to get witnesses, law enforcement officers and attorneys together."

The challenge to keep up in court is not going away. Statewide DUI arrests have risen from about 20,000 in 2008 to an anticipated 26,000 in 2012.

The extra attorneys were paid for with a $1.6 million statewide grant. The state's 16 solicitors have requested its renewal and Gov. Nikki Haley included it in her proposed 2013 budget last month. But state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the subcommittee that oversees law enforcement budgets, warned that he does not think the state would have enough money to pay for the DUI prosecutors this year.

That would be unfortunate. It would have us take two steps backward after taking one step forward, much like a drunk wobbling on the roadside.

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