It took awhile, but state lawmakers finally passed a bill to stiffen South Carolina's DUI laws. Gov. Mark Sanford, who has been pushing for tougher DUI laws for more than a year, signed the bill into law Tuesday.
South Carolina in recent years has had one of the nation's worst rates of alcohol-related highway fatalities. Of 1,037 people killed in crashes statewide in 2006, half died in alcohol-related wrecks, according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Nonetheless, with loophole-studded drunken driving laws, repeat offenders routinely escaped serious consequences by plea-bargaining for lesser offenses.
In 2006, momentum was strong for reforming DUI laws, and bills were introduced in both houses of the Legislature to strengthen penalties and close loopholes. But the session ended before the Senate was able to take up action on the House bill.
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The Senate quickly passed a bill this year, but the governor and House leaders faulted it for being weaker than the House bill in several areas. But, with changes made in conference committee, the bill that emerged was closer to the tougher House version.
Among the more important reforms is a measure that creates graduated penalties depending on blood-alcohol levels. Under this proviso, a first offender who is pulled over after drinking four beers would be treated more leniently than a chronic offender who has consumed a case of beer.
When the new law goes into effect in February, penalties will range from 48 hours in jail or a $400 fine for a first offense for a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or 0.09 percent to seven years in prison for a driver convicted of a fourth or subsequent offense of driving with a blood-alcohol level of 0.16 percent or more. That is a significant increase from the current maximum penalty for repeat offenders of five years in prison.
The new law also raises penalties for refusing to take a breath test. Those who refuse would have their licenses suspended for six months -- up from the current three months. And any driver convicted of driving under the influence -- no matter what the level -- will have to attend a state-approved alcohol treatment program.
Law enforcement agents have been required to read suspects their Miranda rights three times in drunken driving cases, a loophole commonly exploited by defense attorneys. Under the new rules, Miranda rights must be read only once.
Some critics say the new law still has too many loopholes. They complain, for example, that juries can disregard breath test results and acquit defendants for other reasons.
Nonetheless, this law is a notable improvement over the current DUI law, and all those involved in getting it passed deserve praise. To have failed to strengthen the law would have meant turning a blind eye to the 500 fatalities that result each year on our highways as the result of drunken driving.
State lawmakers finally managed to cut some of the loopholes from the DUI law.
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