Senate gets tougher in latest DUI bill

COLUMBIA -- The S.C. Senate on Wednesday toughened a bill aimed at cracking down on drunken drivers, though House Republican leaders contend the changes don't go far enough.

Senators reinstated proposed tougher penalties for first-time offenders, though they limited them to drivers with high blood-alcohol levels.

They also stripped out language in a version approved last week by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would have required officers to tell drivers they don't have to take roadside sobriety tests. But they added a provision that would prevent drivers from being arrested for refusing an officer's request to take the tests.

After more than two hours of debate, senators approved a key second reading of the bill that Gov. Mark Sanford and others last week blasted as being too weak.

With an expected routine third reading today, the bill would return to the House next week. If the House, which passed its version last year, doesn't adopt the Senate amendments, a conference committee will be appointed to work out the differences.

"I don't see any big hurdles to getting a bill," Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg and a criminal defense lawyer who led a Judiciary subcommittee on the bill, said after Wednesday's vote.

But the House Republican Caucus said in a prepared statement it was "disappointed in the Senate's soft DUI reforms," contending senators "significantly weakened the original House bill."

"Now that the House version is back home, we can put teeth in our DUI laws and debate this in a conference committee," said House Majority Leader Jim Merrill of Charleston.

Laura Hudson, a board member of the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said afterward she was pleased with some of the changes the senators made, though she prefers the original House version.

"I didn't like the language of some of the senators that were putting drunks' rights before citizens' rights," said Hudson, who also is executive director of the nonprofit S.C. Crime Victims' Council.

South Carolina in recent years has ranked near the top nationally in alcohol-related traffic deaths. In 2006, it tied with Wisconsin for having the third-highest rate, with Hawaii and Rhode Island ranking No. 1 and 2 respectively, an analysis by The State newspaper found.

Of 1,037 people killed in crashes in South Carolina in 2006, 523, or 50 percent, died in alcohol-related wrecks, according to the most recent statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Tiered system

Both the House and Senate versions would create a tiered system tying penalties to a driver's blood-alcohol level and prior DUI record the higher the blood-alcohol content and more prior offenses, the stiffer the punishment.

In the House version, penalties would range from 48 hours in jail for a first offense of driving with a blood-alcohol level of .08 percent the legal limit for adults to seven years in prison for a fourth offense driving with a blood-alcohol level of .16 percent or greater.

But under the Senate Judiciary Committee's version passed last week, the tiered system wouldn't kick in until a second offense. Senators on Wednesday quickly approved an amendment by Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, to reinstate proposed tougher penalties for first-time offenders with blood-alcohol-levels of at least .16 percent.

"I thought there was a way we could strengthen our bill," Lourie said during a break in the debate. "If someone goes out and gets a .16 or higher, they're hammered."

There was lengthy debate on a proposed amendment by Sen. Larry Martin, R-Pickens, to remove language in the Judiciary Committee's version requiring roadside instructions to drivers advising them of their right to refuse field sobriety tests.

Martin said he believed officers would have a more difficult time making cases with the instruction. Hutto said drivers are entitled to know their rights immediately after they are stopped.

Sen. Jake Knotts, R-Lexington, a former police officer, and Senate President Pro Tem Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, expressed concerns that drivers stopped in small towns would be arrested for refusing to take roadside tests, noting many places have ordinances making it a crime to disobey a police officer's order.