Beaufort County sheriff requests staff attorney, DNA analyst to cut backlogs

zmurdock@beaufortgazette.comApril 27, 2014 

The Beaufort County Sheriff's Office wants to hire an attorney and another DNA analyst to help reduce case and evidence backlogs.

Months-long backlogs are slowing investigations and bogging down deputies in courtroom proceedings, according to Sheriff P.J. Tanner.

The extra help will better equip the department to handle increased amounts of evidence and improve handling of drunken-driving and criminal domestic violence cases, which are beginning to pile up, Tanner said.

He proposed the additions April 21 during his budget presentation to Beaufort County Council. The council will consider the request for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Adding a staff attorney would cost about $112,000 in salary and benefits, Tanner said.

Adding another DNA analyst would cost about $175,000, but most of that is for one-time startup costs. The analyst would be a full-time deputy and would need a police cruiser, radios and mobile equipment, Tanner said. The annual salary would be between $60,000 and $80,000, he added.

Meanwhile, a 125-case backlog of drunken-driving and criminal domestic violence cases is pending in Magistrate Court, Tanner said.

DUI cases are typically prosecuted by the arresting officer, a situation that often pits a deputy against a trained defense attorney, he said.

With an attorney on staff, deputies would still be the primary witnesses in such cases, but legal proceedings would be handled more efficiently and effectively by a trained attorney, he added.

"Let the lawyer argue the law and let us present the facts and evidence," Tanner said. "It levels the playing field."

Solicitor Duffie Stone agrees. Hiring a staff attorney, or assigning an assistant solicitor to the Sheriff's Office, is needed to better equip the office for such cases, said Stone. His 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office also is working with Magistrate Court to streamline transferring criminal domestic violence cases to Circuit Court to whittle away at that backlog, he added.

A staff attorney also would help the Sheriff's Office process civil matters, such as Family Court orders, subpoenas and evictions.

The office's forensic lab also needs help processing more samples, Tanner said.

The Sheriff's Office has two DNA analysts for the lab, which opened four years ago, but they've become overburdened, he said.

Last year the lab analyzed 540 DNA submissions -- up from 114 submissions in 2012 and 124 in 2011, according to Sheriff's Office annual reports.

The increase has led to a backlog of about 133 days for processing new DNA samples, and that delays investigations, Tanner said. Ideally, samples should be processed within 30 days, he added.

"When I was working in Hampton and Allendale, those counties were sending their DNA samples to SLED in Columbia, and they were waiting close to a year for results," attorney and Beaufort County Councilman Tabor Vaux said. "That means people sitting in jail longer, or a delay if you need it to get a warrant or make an arrest."

Such delays haven't caused any serious problems yet, but the Sheriff's Office needs to pick up the pace now before they do, Tanner said.

"That's not being fair to the community, when you're not dealing with these cases appropriately," he said.

Follow reporter Zach Murdock at twitter.com/IPBG_Zach.

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