Drunken-driving law up for debate at SC House hearing

jmonk@thestate.comMarch 19, 2014 

  • Want to go?

    When: 9 a.m. Thursday

    Where: Room 516, S.C. House Blatt Office Building, Statehouse grounds

    Who: Criminal Laws Subcommittee of the Judiciary Committee

— Just how leniently to treat first-offense drunken drivers by exempting a large number of them from having to use an ignition interlock device on their cars is the topic of a Thursday morning hearing in the S.C. House of Representatives office building.

A specific issue in play will be the blood-alcohol content of people who are convicted of, or who are found guilty of, drunken driving on their first offense.

As written, the bill – called Emma’s Law – would require all convicted first-offense drunken drivers blowing a .12 blood alcohol percent or higher to use a device called an ignition interlock on their vehicles. The DUI drivers would also get a special driver’s license so if they were caught driving another vehicle, they would be subject to extensive penalties.

However, some lawmakers want to allow more convicted drunken drivers to avoid being required to use the ignition interlock device. They will propose a standard of .15 blood alcohol percent at Thursday’s meeting.

In South Carolina, a person who blows a .08 blood alcohol percent is considered to be impaired for the purpose of driving, so the .12 standard that is being debated is already 50 percent higher than that.

Speaking in favor of the law at Thursday’s hearing will be a top official of Mothers Against Drunken Driving.

Also speaking will be David Longstreet, father of Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old who was killed by a repeat-offender drunken driver. Emma was going to church with her family at the time of the accident.

Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins will speak as well. Jenkins’ 3-year-old grand-nephew, Josiah Jenkins, was killed earlier this month by a man now charged with felony DUI and also a repeat offender.

The federal Centers for Disease Control says that ignition interlock devices are a proven way to keep drunks off the road and have led to substantial reductions in DUI-related fatalities. Twenty-one states have laws that require first-offense DUI offenders to use ignition interlock devices.

The bill, authored by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, is opposed by some criminal defense lawyers. Defending drunken drivers in South Carolina courts and in the administrative law court system is a booming business for lawyers, who can make up to $7,500 for each routine DUI case, Emma’s Law supporters plan to remind lawmakers.

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