In a classic case of the “tail wagging the dog,” two state prosecutors claim that DUI laws in South Carolina are apparently too easy to beat. They assert that “strict interpretation” of the law is to blame for losing otherwise “slam dunk” drunk driving cases. Take pause. Let that thought sink in. Judges are being maligned for enforcing the law. How about better training for police? How about more selective arrests and prosecutions? How can anyone seriously argue that video evidence laws should be rewritten. The current rules are fairly straightforward. Turn on the camera. Make sure it is working. Read Miranda warnings in front of the lens. These legal requirements really do not seem too demanding or draconian. Afterall, video evidence protects everyone – criminal suspects as well as the police. It keeps both sides “honest.” Juries no longer have to take anybody’s “word.” Rather, they can watch for themselves. The law is fine. It is both reasonable and fair. Police and prosecutors should focus on following the law instead of blaming their own system.

At Reeves, Aiken & Hightower LLP, our seasoned 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 aggressive 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 charges to reckless driving. We welcome the opportunity to sit down and personally discuss your case. Compare our attorneys’ credentials to any other firm. Then call us for a private consultation. www.rjrlaw.com.

Here is the written transcript of the recent interview at issue regarding the prosecution of drunk driving. The title of the news story, aired on WSPA-TV Channel 7, was “DUI roadblocks: Are Loopholes in the Law allowing drunk drivers to walk?” Only wish there was video.


Two top prosecutors in the Upstate say South Carolina’s DUI law has failed miserably in its only purpose: to deter drunk driving and keep you and your loved ones safe on the highway.

They say, more than ever, those arrested for the crime are later walking out of courtrooms with the charge either dropped or reduced to a lesser offense. They say conviction rates have plummeted alarmingly in the four years since legislators re-wrote sections of the state’s DUI law to ostensibly make it stronger by increasing penalties.

According to numbers provided by the South Carolina Chief Justice’s Office, during an 8-month period from November 21, 2010 to July 21, 2011, only 46% of DUI cases that went to court actually resulted in convictions for that charge.

The Solicitors for the two largest circuits in the Upstate say there is one part of every DUI arrest that has made convictions harder than ever to come by: the videotape.

“The videotape, which is the most powerful piece of evidence we have, is being suppressed or the case is being dismissed because it was done incorrectly or in violation of the statute,” says Walt Wilkins, 13th Circuit Solicitor for Greenville and Pickens Counties.

He says when lawmakers revised the DUI law in 2008 to strengthen punishment, they also made it much more difficult for videotapes of arrests to be seen by juries.

“Before 2009, to suppress a video, the defense had to prove that the video was prejudiced to the suspect, which is difficult to prove,” says Wilkins. “But now, videos must strictly follow the videotaping section of the law to be introduced to a jury.”

He says, because of that strict interpretation, cases that were slam-dunk convictions prior to 2009 are now being thrown out by judges – often because of what’s not on tape. He showed us several examples, including the arrest of a driver who already had 5 pending DUI charges. During the field sobriety test, the driver could not stand on one leg and could not walk heel-to-toe. But in trying to walk heel-to-toe, he kept walking and walked out of view of the camera. This proved to be his saving grace. The judge dismissed the case because, as the law calls for, the entirefield sobriety test was not on video. Wilkins says that’s preposterous considering that arresting officers don’t have a second officer operating the camera so that it can be moved if a suspect should walk off screen. (Video cameras are stationary, fixed on the interior of the patrol car’s windshield.)

“Officers in the field have no way of knowing exactly what is in the field of view of their camera,” says Wilkins. “We often kid that you need a degree from Hollywood to make a good DUI case here in South Carolina.”

Wilkins shared another video that showed a car on I-385, weaving onto the shoulder several times. After pulling over and getting out of the car, the driver admitted to the deputy that he had drank six beers. The man could not follow the deputy’s instructions as he tried to perform the “eye track” test. Then, as he tried to stand with one foot in front of the other for the heel-toe walk, he could not do so without losing his balance. He finally conceded that he could not do the test and told the deputy to arrest him.

The case was perfect – except for one thing: by law, after a suspect is brought to the local detention center to perform the breathalyzer test, the officer must wait 20 minutes before offering the test. During this time, the suspect is to be videotaped as he sits in a holding cell.

“If you videotape him for 19 minutes and 40 seconds, then your case is dismissed; you’re in violation of the statute,” says Wilkins.

In this case, Wilkins says the suspect told the officer up front that he was not going to take a breathalyzer, so the officer did not record the 20-minute waiting period. This prompted the judge to dismiss the case. Wilkins says he has more than 200 similar cases pending.

Wilkins’ counterpart in Spartanburg shares his frustration. In 2007, Barry Barnette was named DUI Prosecutor of the Year by the Department of Public Safety, but last year his conviction rate fell to 44 percent. He says the state’s DUI law is not keeping the public safe.

“It’s a situation now where there’s cases being dismissed that should be going forward,” says Barnette. “It’s creating a dangerous scenario where we do not deter people from getting behind the wheel drunk because they know they have a good chance of not getting convicted.”

He showed Seven On Your Side video of one example where the driver had hit another vehicle in a parking lot. The driver appears to be so intoxicated, he can’t even stand still in front of the trooper. But the driver got the charge dropped because the trooper didn’t read him his miranda rights in front of the camera. On the video, you can hear the trooper reading the suspect his rights off camera. But the court says audio isn’t good enough.

Barnette and Wilkins call these examples of “loopholes” in the law and they say someone is exploiting them all the way to the bank.

“The DUI business is big in South Carolina right now. It’s a very lucrative business for attorneys,” says Wilkins.

Brad Hutto is regarded as one of the best DUI defense attorneys in the state. He’s also the state senator who chaired the judiciary subcommittee that re-wrote the DUI law in 2008. And he says he doesn’t see a problem with a system that allows those who profit from the enforcement of a law to be the ones in charge of re-writing that law.

“No more than I see any conflict with people who pay taxes writing tax laws,” says Hutto. “I mean, we all have our own lives, and we all do things in those lives, some that give us insight maybe more specifically than others, but, no, there are some things are clearly conflicts of interest. This is not one of them.”

He says the DUI law is protecting the public and he doesn’t believe the videotaping issues are nearly as common as prosecutors would like us to believe.

“I’m not going to tell you there’s not an isolated case here or there, but I would tell you that’s exactly what it is: an isolated case,” says Hutto.

Ronnie Cole is an Anderson attorney who literally wrote the book on how to beat traffic cases in South Carolina. He was also one of several lawyers who testified before Hutto’s committee in 2008, as the committee sought input from those who could offer insight on how changes to the law would affect the system. Cole says if DUI convictions are down, the problem isn’t the way the law is written but rather how officers are carrying it out.

“How hard is it to point a camera at someone and hit the record button?” says Cole. “Officers have an 8-hour training course that teaches them how to do that. If they aren’t doing it in these cases, then Barry (Barnette) and Walt (Wilkins) should just send out a memo and say ‘hey, stop doing things this way’. That would be a simple fix right there.”

He said in the example where the suspect walked off camera, the officer should have had him walking toward the front of the patrol car, directly toward the camera, instead of having him walk across the camera’s field of view.

“The cases that a lot of prosecutors gripe about is the cases where that officer has made a very poor case, for whatever reason,” says Cole.

Wilkins says officers cannot be expected to “mark every little box on the videotaping checklist” during every traffic stop when they are often dealing with adverse conditions or potentially dangerous suspects.

“That puts, in my opinion, an undue burden on law enforcement to make the perfect DUI case when they’re out there in real life, real live world situations trying to keep people off the streets who are intoxicated and save lives,” says Wilkins.

Wilkins and Barnette say they would like to see changes to the law so that prosecutors aren’t penalized for “technicalities”. Barnette has written some suggested revisions to the law that would make several changes to the videotaping section, including: allowing just audio of the mirandization process to be legally sufficient, striking the mandatory recording of the 20-minute observation period, and preventing a suspect’s actions (like waking off camera) from being sufficient grounds for dismissal of a video. State Representatives Eddie Tallon and Derham Cole, Junior, say they will co-sponsor a bill to make Barnette’s suggested revisions law.

Hutto says he does not believe “loopholes” exist in the law and does not believe these problems are as prevalent as prosecutors say they are, but he says he would consider revising the law if the solicitors present a compelling argument to do so.

“Nobody wants the law to not be properly administered,” said Hutto. “The intention in the videotaping law was not to create loopholes. The intention really was to create a tool for prosecution of these cases.”

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Palmetto State has the nation’s highest percentage of fatal crashes caused by intoxicated drivers. In comparison to our neighbors, North Carolina ranks 29th and Georgia is 44th (out of 50 states and the District of Columbia) in 2010, the most recent year of available data.