DUI Case Backlog Reduced After S.C. Supreme Court Issues Order

A large backlog of DUI cases has been sigmificantly reduced after South Carolina Chief Justice Jean Toal ordered magistrate and municipal courts to clear thousands of lingering alcohol related cases.

According to a report in the Charleston Post and Courier, Chief Justice Jean Toal issued an Order requiring all non-jury cases older than 60 days and jury cases older than 120 days to be closed by July 2011.

The order cleared 11,000 cases, but thousands of old cases remained. During the four-month period, new cases were constantly being added, so by the end of July, 14,000 cases still awaited hearings. Those cases are being processed under the framework of the original Order. Cases where no jury trial has been demanded are being scheduled for disposition within 60 days of the initial court date, while cases that are moved to the jury trial docket are being scheduled for trial within 120 days.

Various factors had contributed to the growth of the backlog. Chief Justice Toal pointed to one source as a shortage of judges statewide. The article mentioned that party-requested continuances have delayed cases, sometimes going back years.

The reality is that a number of factors contributed to the backlog. Many law enforcement agencies developed their own special DUI Task Force. Such task forces operate with a mission to make more arrests for DUI. The penalties for being convicted of DUI in South Carolina increased dramatically effective February 2009, prompting most arrestees to retain legal counsel to defend them, rather than simply plead guilty because it was less costly.

Old Cases Out First

It was reported that after the order, 42 percent of the cases that had been pending were dropped or dismissed; in the four months before the order, only 30 percent had been dropped.

These numbers are misleading in that they suggest that the Order caused prosecutors to simply drop cases with no regard to the merits. The 12 percent difference can also be explained by the approach some prosecutors have taken historically where they hold a weak case rather than dismiss it in order to use the pending charge as a type of individualized deterrent.

Another area of confusion stems from how one might interpret what actually happens when a charge is dismissed. There is no lesser included offense to DUI, therefore in cases where negotiations result in a plea to Reckless Driving, Leaving the Scene of an Accident or even Driving With An Unlawful Alcohol Concentration, the DUI charge must be dismissed when the new traffic ticket is issued to the defendant.

Not A Priority

Despite the fact that the Defense, the Prosecution and the Court approach the disposition of DUI cases with the same level of commitment as other types of criminal cases; many of the DUI and DUAC cases have languished because the municipal and magistrate courts are at the “the bottom of the food chain” in terms of forum priority. This means that lawyers are often required, by rule, to attend to cases in higher-level courts, leaving the DUI cases to be pushed back to a later date on the courts’ calendar.

Resources Also An Issue

In most of DUI 1st offense cases made by the South Carolina Highway Patrol, the state trooper represents the state as prosecutor of these DUI cases. If the trooper appears at the courthouse and the case is delayed or continued, they will have to return later, again taking them away from their patrol.

In a story by WPSA-TV, Chief Justice Toal commented that the troopers should not be required to prosecute the case. She called for “a lot more resources” to prosecute the cases, using attorneys for the state instead of the troopers, as they would be able to more accurately gauge the strength of the case.

David Ross, director of South Carolina’s Prosecution Commission agreed. He noted the increasing complexity of the DUI laws, and that even if the troopers had the time, an attorney should prosecute the case.

Prosecutors are generally more up to date on developments in the law, and understand legal procedure and the rules of evidence. Thus they are in a better position to assess the best course of action in a given case. Law enforcement officers serve a different function in the system and the people of South Carolina are best served when these roles are not combined.

This, of course, is problematic with ever-tighter state budgets, which offer little flexibility for increases in resources, and often require cuts in staffing. Part of the backlog is due to the ending of grants from the state to the counties. Several Circuit Solicitors around the state have obtained grant funds and have used the same to employ prosecutors for the purpose of prosecuting DUI cases in Magistrates Courts. But this solution may be temporary as it is unknown if these grants will be renewed.

Many municipalities have taken a different approach by hiring lawyers to serve as part-time prosecutors. This type approach is only as good as the commitment made by part-time prosecutor. In jurisdictions where the part-time lawyer accesses the case and manages the movement of the case on the docket; this approach is very effective. In situations where the part-time prosecutor simply parrots the position of an interested witness, this approach can be very inefficient.

Simpler Law?

Laura Hudson, the Public Policy Liaison for South Carolina Mothers Against Drunk Driving’s, spoke with WSPA-TV about the backlog, and was quoted as saying, “If you never get a conviction for that first one, and it’s dismissed, the second on[e] you get is treated as a first, the third one you get is treated as a [second], so you’re masking … that very dangerous driver,” Hudson said.

Her basic complaint was while it may have helped clear the backlog, it may have “let off” many drivers who received lower-level plea agreements, for charges like reckless driving. Hudson noted, “The only real solutions are more prosecutors, more courts or a less complicated law, like “per se” laws that many states have.” According to the story, some of these laws have been ruled unconstitutional in some states.

In states where 0.08 BAC is “per se” intoxicated, the accuracy of the test, the calibration of the equipment and the training of the operator can all be questioned and complicate the case.

Given the fallibilities and inexact nature of testing breath for accurate blood alcohol values, reliance on the number reported by a machine, as the only relevant evidence of impairment, is a major step backward, not forward. Such an approach nullifies each of the most fundamental protections afforded in America; trial by jury, presumption of innocence and the demand of proof beyond all reasonable doubt before a criminal conviction.

Notwithstanding Mrs. Hudson’s complaint, a review of the statute confirms that South Carolina has one of the most straight forward DUI laws in the country. Like everywhere else in the USA, an officer can conduct a traffic stop as long as he has articulable suspicion or probable cause of a violation of the law. The legal standard which defines DUI is “material and appreciable impairment.”

The complaints about the law being complex or complicated often arise due to the officer’s lack of compliance with the video recording law. Opinions on any subject often vary. The issue of whether a driver is impaired as defined by the law is a matter of opinion.

Fairness is ensured by the requirement that the investigation be video and audio recorded. Activating the recording equipment is not complicated; recording systems installed by DPS are set up so that the camera comes on automatically once the blue lights are activated.

Every law enforcement officer in the state has been given a card which lists Miranda rights and been taught when to read it. Everything else is a question of whether the citizen’s conduct as recorded on video is consistent with the officer’s conclusion and written report.

Rather than contributing to a backlog, the proper use of tools like video recording make it much easier to distinguish a bad case from a good one; thus eliminating the need or desire for many jury trials.

At Reeves, Aiken & Hightower LLP, our attorneys have over 70 years of combined trial experience in both civil and criminal courts.  We focus our criminal practice on DUI and DWI cases in both South Carolina and North Carolina and are available by mobile phone in the evenings, on weekends, and even holidays. Our lawyers are licensed in both states and are effective criminal trial attorneys.  We are not afraid to go to Court and often do. Don’t settle for a lawyer who only wants to reduce your DUI charge to reckless driving.  Call us today for an attorney case review of your particular situation. We are here to help.

Article provided by the Carroll Law Firm of Charleston, South Carolina