COLUMBIA — Hearings in drunken driving cases are being postponed as the State Law Enforcement Division works to restore data on a computer server containing 22 years’ worth of evidence.
The database of suspects’ Breathalyzer tests has been down since July 5 and won’t be back online until next month, said SLED spokesman Thom Berry.
Meanwhile, neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys can access test results and videos that date to 1991.
Officials suspect lightning hit a transformer, causing an electronic device in SLED’s generator system, called a rectifier, to fail and the power supply to become unstable. The entire system was taken down for repair. All other SLED servers were back online after a couple of hours, Berry said.
“The implied consent server has hundreds of thousands of files and videos,” he said. “It’s not like we can just flip a switch and it can come back up. It takes some time.”
He could not immediately supply a more precise number of files.
State law requires the filming of Breathalyzer tests. If the footage can’t be produced, cases could be thrown out.
But Berry insists none of the data has been lost.
An assistant solicitor for York and Union counties estimates fewer than 20 cases in his circuit are being pushed back.
“It’s not a terrible inconvenience. Hopefully, this is just a little blip,” said prosecutor Matthew Shelton. “Obviously, we want to get cases moved.”
Doug Barfield, solicitor for the Sixth Circuit that includes Chester and Lancaster counties, said his office, “at this point,” has not been directly impacted.
“If we have files that we’re reviewing and we can’t get on the website, that will delay us in knowing” whether the case is a “good case or bad case” or what kind of plea deals they can put on the table, Barfield said.
Since July 5, the Sixth Circuit has not had any DUI trials, Barfield said. The circuit’s DUI solicitor, paid for with a grant, handles most cases in magistrate’s court.
Defense attorneys said SLED needs to provide a full explanation, and they question the month-long span to fix the system.
“If in fact they’re able to restore the data by Aug. 9, questions are going to linger,” said attorney Tim Kulp of Charleston. “Why didn’t they have that backed up in a way it could be restored immediately?”
While SLED notified law enforcement agencies and solicitors’ offices that the system was down, defense attorneys say they were left to figure it out on their own.
Kulp said he tried to access the videotaping of a client’s Breathalyzer test on July 12, with his client in his office, and kept getting an error message on his computer screen. He sent an email to defense attorneys through a listserve and realized others across the state were having the same issue.
Normally, law enforcement agencies across the state transfer their Breathalyzer readings and video to SLED’s server, generally overnight, allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to access them through a secure website. While it’s down, the data is being stored on agencies’ individual machines, Berry said.
The inaccessibility is not necessarily a good thing for the defense, Kulp said.
“If I have a client who comes in with an alleged reading of 0.26, the first thing I want to look at is the video from the breath test room. If that person is lucid … and not falling over and they look sober, then that’s something I not only want to see, I want it presented as evidence,” Kulp said. “It cuts on both sides. It could be incriminating evidence or exonerative. Regardless of its flavor, it’s evidence required by law to be kept.”
Attorney Jason Turnblad of Chesterfield, who has about 30 clients’ DUI cases pending, said he’s frustrated.
“I don’t have access to anything, whether it was two years ago or last week,” he said. “This is a disadvantage for everybody. I just want to know exactly what’s going on.”
The director of the South Carolina Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said all of its members are concerned.
“We are watching with great interest to see how SLED resolves this situation and what the long-term impact will be on pending cases, if any,” said Kitty Sutton.
The Herald’s Jonathan McFadden contributed