March 20, 2014

Emma’s Law moves forward in effort to crack down on drunken driving

An obscure five-member S.C. House subcommittee controlled by lawyer-legislators on Thursday approved a weakened version of Emma’s Law, a bill that seeks to crack down on drunken drivers and reduce DUI deaths and crashes.

An obscure five-member S.C. House subcommittee controlled by lawyer-legislators on Thursday approved a weakened version of Emma’s Law, a bill that seeks to crack down on drunken drivers and reduce DUI deaths and crashes.

“We have gotten the bill through the biggest obstacle,” said Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, the bill’s sponsor.

The bill, which would sharply increase the use of ignition interlock devices, passed the state Senate 13 months ago. But for more than a year, the bill has been bottled up in the House Criminal Laws subcommittee. Members – four of the five are lawyers – said they needed time to study the bill and that other legislation had priority.

Critics said lawyers created the delay out of self-interest. Part of the law would have the effect of cutting down on the legal work associated with tens of thousands of driving-under-the-influence cases brought by police each year across the state. The Legislature has created multiple paths by which lawyers can earn fees by requesting hearings, attacking DUI evidence and otherwise delaying decisions in DUI cases. The result: DUI drivers have a relatively easy time getting back on the road, critics say.

In 2012, with 358 deaths, South Carolina ranked seventh of the 50 states in sheer raw numbers of DUI deaths – not just as a percentage of the population, according to the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Defending DUIs is an estimated $100 million-plus business for South Carolina lawyers, who charge from $1,500 to $7,500 for a typical case. In a recent 12-month period, July 2012 to June 2013, some 30,000 DUI cases were brought in criminal and civil license suspension courts in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Court Administration and the Administrative Law Court.

Committee members, on a 3-2 vote, weakened the bill Thursday by passing an amendment raising the DUI blood-level alcohol percentage that would require convicted drivers to use an interlock device to .15 percent from .12 percent. That would mean that fewer people convicted of first-offense DUI would be required to use an ignition interlock device.

In any case, Thursday’s hearing was a necessary step to move the bill on to the full Judiciary Committee, where Lourie and supporters hope to put teeth back in the bill and beat back efforts to weaken it further. In the end, the amended bill passed 5-0.

The hearing was marked by an overflow crowd of prominent doctors, police and fire officers, and DUI victims and family members, as well as activists from numerous safety and traffic organizations.

Many spoke briefly, but eloquently.

Each supported the bill’s key provision: requiring many convicted DUI first offenders to use an ignition interlock – a device that won’t let a driver start a car if he or she has been drinking. Such devices have been proven to significantly reduce DUI road fatalities in other states, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Current state law only requires some repeat DUI offenders, not first offenders, to use the device.

Among the speakers:

•  Debbie Weir, national CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Weir told the committee that South Carolina’s current laws tilt toward giving DUI offenders suspended licenses and letting them back on the road. “License suspension is no longer an effective counter measure,” she said. “Driving on an ignition interlock assures the driver is sober. ... It acts as a virtual probation officer riding in the front seat.”
•  Columbia pediatrician Deborah Greenhouse, president of the S.C. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. She was the pediatrician for 3-year-old Josiah Jenkins, killed by a six-time repeat DUI offender earlier this month. “Josiah was a beautiful little boy. He had his whole life ahead of him. His smile could light up a room. A drunk driver turned off that light.”
•  David Longstreet, the father of Emma Longstreet, for whom Lourie’s bill is named. She was 6 years old when she was killed by a repeat drunken driver going 60 mph when he slammed into a van she was riding in. “It was a medical decapitation.” Longstreet told the panel that the man who killed his daughter, Billy Patrick Hutto Jr., told a judge that if he had been on ignition interlock, he wouldn’t have been able to start the car that day.
•  Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins, standing with his niece, Latoya Jenkins, the mother of Josiah, whose alleged killer also is a repeat offender. The chief said, “I’m sworn to protect people. That’s my job. But I felt so helpless I couldn’t do a thing for Josiah.” Police, fire and medical personnel are devastated emotionally by the unending flood of victims in crashes caused by South Carolina’s DUIs, he said. “Please pass this bill. We don’t need another Emma, another Josiah.”

Besides Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, members who voted to weaken the bill were lawyers Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, and Rep. David Weeks, D-Sumter. The two who voted for the stronger version were Rep. Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg, and Rep. Ralph Kennedy, R-Lexington. Tallon is a former SLED agent; Kennedy, a former prosecutor.

The hearing also was marked by a personal attack on victim rights advocate Laura Hudson by Rutherford. Hudson, a veteran figure among the Statehouse lobbyists, has been a driving force in pushing for passage of Emma’s Law.

Rutherford said Hudson has been lying to people by telling them that lawyer lawmakers like himself are trying to derail Emma’s Law to keep their fees from defending DUIs safe. In fact, he said, all subcommittee members wanted to pass the bill out.

“The only person that profits from DUIs is Laura Hudson,” Rutherford said. “The only person who has continued to profit by telling lies is Laura Hudson.”

Rutherford said he is more of a reformer than Hudson because he has been trying to pass a law that would cause DUI defendants to be found guilty if they only had a small trace of alcohol in their systems. Such a bill, however, is deemed unrealistic by many because it would never pass. No state has a law like the one Rutherford suggested.

After the hearing, Lourie – “ one of the General Assembly’s leading safety advocates – said he has worked with Hudson for many years.

“She is a true hero of the Statehouse – she’s one of the greatest advocates for victims and safety I’ve ever known,” Lourie said.

Lourie said, “The bottom line to all of this is – we’re going to fight for a tougher bill.”

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