COLUMBIA — Placards have been posted across the Midlands. Bumper stickers have been put on cars. And David Longstreet has talked to about every civic group he could find to push for the passage of Emma’s Law.
He and his wife, Karen, of Lexington, lost their 6-year-old daughter Emma to a repeat drunken driver in 2012. On Tuesday night, they were joined by Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins in speaking to Columbia City Council. Jenkins buried his 3-year-old grand-nephew Josiah on Sunday after an accident involving a driver who also is a repeat DUI-offender.
On Thursday morning, after a year’s delay, the proposed Emma’s Law, which supporters say would cut down on DUI-related fatalities, injuries and crashes, will come up for consideration in an obscure S.C. House subcommittee.
“This bill is one of the few measures in the General Assembly that will actually save lives if passed,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, chief sponsor of the bill named after Emma Longstreet.
The bill would markedly expand the use of a device called ignition interlock by requiring all persons pleading guilty to, or convicted of, first-offense DUI to rent the device to install on their vehicles. The offender would then have to blow an alcohol-free breath into the device before he is able to start the car. Currently, only DUI second offenders have to use the ignition interlock.
Under the bill, any convicted first offender would get a new license to drive, and that license would identify the bearer as someone who had to use an ignition interlock device. Strong penalties would kick in if a convicted DUI offender was found driving a vehicle in violation of the ignition interlock conditions.
“It’s been proven to change behavior, and that is what we want to do – change behavior,” said Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, a former longtime SLED agent and one of the main supporters of the bill in the House.
The bill changes behavior in many DUI offenders, proponents say, because it forces them to focus on being sober before they can start a car. Under the current DUI law, it is easy for a DUI offender to have his lawyer win him back his use of his license in administrative law court – and then not have to think about being sober in order to drive, supporters say.
Tallon predicted Emma’s Law would have the same kind of lifesaving impact as a 2005 law that required South Carolinians to wear seat belts. Although critics of that law said it would have little effect, the now-widespread use of seat belts in motor vehicles across the state is credited with saving hundreds of lives each year.
The bill comes before the House subcommittee as drunken drivers are killing an increasing number of people each year in South Carolina.
Some deaths are widely reported:
Emma Longstreet was in a car with her family going to church when it was struck by a repeat drunken offender. She died; Billy Patrick Hutto Jr. is serving nine years in prison.
Donald Ford, 39, of Columbia, was struck last month by a car going the wrong way on Interstate 20 near Broad River Road. He died; Jessie Samuels Jr., a man with a history of drunken driving, is at the Alvin S. Glenn jail, charged with DUI causing felony death.
Josiah Jenkins died earlier this month several days after the car he was in was struck. Last week, he died after being taken off a ventilator at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital. Lonnie Gross III, who has multiple DUI convictions, is at Alvin S. Glenn, charged with DUI causing felony death.
But most DUI deaths receive little publicity. Still, the carnage adds up.
In 2012, 358 people – roughly 40 percent of all driving fatalities – were killed in South Carolina drunken driving incidents.
That’s up from 309 fatalities in the state in 2011. Those 309 deaths were 37 percent of all driving fatalities.
In the Midlands in 2012, 30 people died at the hands of drunken drivers in Richland County, and 28 in Lexington County, according to the most recent figures available from the S.C. Department of Public Safety’s Office of Highway Safety.
Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a criminal defense attorney who is a member of the subcommittee, said he has questions about the reliability of the device.
“I have a 2013 car – it does not always operate the way it is supposed to,” Rutherford said. “The average car out there is seven-eight years old. If something goes wrong with the ignition interlock, who pays for that? I know it’s the latest technology, but my iPhone is, too, and it doesn’t always work.”
The bill, if passed, also would cut profits in the multimillion dollar criminal defense lawyers’ business across South Carolina. These lawyers defend DUI suspects. If the bill is to pass the House this year, it must first clear the criminal laws subcommittee – four of whose five members are lawyers.
Currently, lawyers can represent a single DUI first offense suspect on two separate legal tracks – one being in criminal court before a magistrate, and the other being before a hearing officer of the administrative law court on DUI-related drivers’ license suspension matters. If the bill passes, there would be less of a need for DUI offenders to proceed along the administrative law court track.
Rutherford said that people who say that trial lawyers will vote against the bill to avoid losing money representing clients have a “silly attitude.”
Laura Hudson, chief of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, said, “We tried to get a hearing last year, and we were unsuccessful. This is a vital public safety issue.”
David Longstreet, Emma’s dad, has been on a crusade to reform state DUI laws since his daughter died and has been working with Hudson and Lourie.
Along the way, Longstreet has picked up many lawmakers as supporters, including Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington.
“I was at Emma’s funeral,” Quinn said. “This bill is an opportunity to turn a great tragedy in meaningful reform.”
Tuesday night, Columbia’s fire chief joined the Longstreets as Columbia City Council adopted a resolution calling on the Legislature to adopt Emma’s Law.
“We don’t need another Josiah,” Jenkins told council, choking back tears as Longstreet draped his arm over Jenkins’ shoulder. “There are so many more out there. If my nephew’s death can save another person, then his death was not in vain.”