DUI Cases Dismissed

Most Charges Dropped When Police Didn’t Show Up in

By Rick BrundrettKnight

A dispute between two state agencies has resulted in the dismissal of
hundreds of cases involving accused drunken drivers who had their
licenses automatically suspended. From Jan. 1 through Wednesday, S.C.
Administrative Law Court hearing officers dismissed 421 cases statewide –
nearly 70 percent of the 602 cases they heard – making it easier for
those drivers to get back behind the wheel. And while the dismissal rate
for all of 2005 also was high – 60 percent – the difference this year is
that in the vast majority of the dismissed cases, the investigating
police officers didn’t show up for the administrative hearings because
they weren’t notified. Police officers haven’t been notified because the
court and the state Department of Motor Vehicles can’t agree who has that
responsibility. A state law that went into effect Jan. 1 transferred
oversight of the hearing officers from the department to the court.
Marvin Kittrell, the court’s chief judge, said Thursday that his staff
would start notifying police officers immediately. Meanwhile, Kittrell
said he is pushing proposed legislation, scheduled for debate Tuesday in
the S.C. House, that would more clearly give his office that
responsibility. “It’s a mess,” he said. “I really think it’s [the motor
vehicles department’s] responsibility.”

Under state law, licenses are suspended automatically for 90 days for
suspected drunken drivers who refuse to take a blood-alcohol test, and 30
days for those whose blood-alcohol level is at least .15 percent. A
blood-alcohol level of .08 percent or higher is illegal. Drivers can
appeal their suspensions to one of the state’s six Administrative Law
Court hearing officers. If their administrative cases are dismissed,
drivers can get their licenses back pending the outcome of their criminal
cases. Kittrell, who oversees the hearing officers, said he understands
the public safety ramifications of dismissing cases, but “we cannot be
more than a court.” “We have to apply the law equally and fairly to all
parties when they walk in the door.” Pursuing appeals

The Department of Motor Vehicles has not reinstated licenses in about
200 of the 421 dismissed cases while it files appeals with Kittrell’s
court, department officials said last week. Most of the affected drivers
can apply for temporary licenses pending the department’s appeals, they
said. “We have additional cases that are being reviewed, and we will
probably file more” appeals, said department spokeswoman Beth Parks. The
department contends that when its hearing officers and staff were
transferred to the court under the new law, “all the functions and duties
went with it,” Parks said. “We are working these things through with the
ALC,” said Lotte Devlin, the department’s policy and planning
administrator. “There’s just a difference in interpretation going on.”
Col. Russell Roark, head of the Highway Patrol, said last week his
division had been working with the DMV to develop a “cleaner”
notification process involving sending hearing notices to officers by
e-mail instead of by fax. The e-mails would be forwarded via a central
account at the Highway Patrol. “We’re relying on the Department of Motor
Vehicles to notify us,” he said. “If the DMV notifies us of a hearing, we
will try, to the best of our ability, to make sure our trooper is at the
hearing.” Roark didn’t know if any of the 421 dismissed cases involved
troopers. Legislative fix

A sponsor of a House bill aimed at fixing the problem blames the DMV.
“They’re deliberately picking a fight,” Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester,
said last week. “Had there not been a problem to begin with, the
administrative hearing officers would still be with them.” Before the
hearing officers were transferred out of the DMV, Delleney said, some
department managers treated the officers “like stepchildren.” Some were
even locked out of their offices, he said. Parks said department director
Marcia Adams – who was unavailable for comment last week – proposed in
2004 moving the hearing officers out of the department because “it really
wasn’t part of our mission.” Delleney said he supported the transfer to
the Administrative Law Court so drivers could have a “fair and impartial
hearing.” But Kittrell said he didn’t want the hearing officers under his
jurisdiction. “I felt I had enough on my plate at that time,” he said.
Delleney said he will push to get the legislation this week to the
Senate, which has a similar bill pending in a subcommittee. Under both
bills, the arresting police officers or officers operating Breathalyzer
machines would be designated as parties in Administrative Law Court
hearings. Kittrell said current law requires his court to notify only
parties. Police officers are now considered witnesses for the department,
not parties.


Jami Goldman, executive director of the state chapter of Mothers
Against Drunk Driving, said last week she was unaware of the problem
until contacted by The (Columbia) State. “The officers I’ve met really
want to get drunk drivers off the road,” she said. “I would have to
believe if they had to be [at the hearings], they would be there. It
would be silly to pull somebody over and then go away.” Last year,
however, administrative hearing officers, while part of the Department of
Motor Vehicles, dismissed 1,818, or nearly 60 percent, of the 3,118 cases
they heard because police officers didn’t appear, Administrative Law
Court records show. Failure to notify police officers about the hearings
wasn’t the problem then, court and department officials said. But they
could not provide reasons for those dismissals. Robert Harley Jr., the
state’s chief hearing officer, estimated that in a third of his dismissed
cases, the arresting officer didn’t show up as part of a deal in which
the driver agreed to quickly plead guilty to the criminal charge.
Officers also might skip administrative hearings because it’s their
scheduled day off, he said, or they have conflicts with other cases, or
they don’t believe their case is strong. S.C. Administrative Law Court
hearing officers dismissed 421 DUI cases statewide – nearly 70 percent of
the 602 cases they heard – making it easier for those drivers to get back
behind the wheel.

Source: http://www.myrtlebeachonline.com/

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