Governor to sign bill toughening drunken driving penalties

COLUMBIA -- Gov. Mark Sanford today will sign off on a dramatically rewritten drunken driving law that imposes tougher penalties and eliminates what police and victim advocates call loopholes in exiting law.

The new law ties 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 penalty.

Sanford has been pushing tougher DUI enforcement since an investigation by The State newspaper found that repeat DUI offenders in South Carolina routinely were being allowed to plea bargain their cases to lesser charges.

In recent years, South Carolina has ranked near the top nationally in alcohol-related deaths. 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.

"The law enforcement community now has a statute they can go in and successfully prosecute under," said Jeff Moore, executive director of the S.C. Sheriff's Association, who chaired a special committee that drafted the initial legislation.

But West Columbia criminal defense lawyer Heath Taylor, who spoke at a number of legislative hearings, says the new law is "much ado about nothing."

"We have said all along you can make all the laws you want, but if you don't have any blue lights on the road, it's not going to make any difference," he said. "So many agencies are understaffed."

One victim's advocate said the new law could be even stronger.

"Do we have a perfect law? No," said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims' Council and a board member of the state Mothers Against Drunk Driving chapter. "Do we have a law that is as tough as other states? No."

Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the bill has been "a long time in coming ... something the governor and a number of people worked on very hard."

Under the new law, which will go into effect Feb. 10-

• 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 content of 0.16 percent or more. The current maximum prison time for a repeat offender is five years.

• Juries first will have to find a defendant guilty of violating the law and then make a separate determination about the level of intoxication.

• Drivers who refuse to take a breath test would have their driver's licenses suspended for six months up from the current three months.

• Any driver convicted of driving under the influence no matter what the level will have to go through an approved alcohol treatment program.

Victim advocates and law officials defeated defense lawyers by convincing lawmakers to drop the requirement that officers give multiple Miranda warnings after traffic stops.

Advocates contend that and several other loopholes that were closed made it easier for cases to be thrown out in court.

Still, Hudson said even with the new law, juries can disregard breath test results and acquit defendants for other reasons.

"Our state does not have a real per-se law," she said, "Everything is rebuttable."

Moore said drivers who refuse to take breath tests for the first time still can get route-restricted licenses that allow them to drive to and from work.

Sanford spoke a number of times over the past year to push for a tougher law often criticizing unnamed lawyer-lawmakers for holding it up. The bill he will sign today passed the House last year and had nearly 80 co-sponsors, but it arrived too late for the Senate to take up action on it.

The Senate quickly passed its version this year, though Sanford and House leaders criticized it as being too weak. A conference committee eventually adopted a compromise that was closer to the House version.