South Carolina Lags in Addressing Repeat DUI Offenses

Over the past five years, nearly forty percent of South Carolina drivers arrested for repeat DUI offenses received reduced charges in exchange for pleading guilty. That number is 71 percent in one Circuit Court. Almost sixty percent of cases involving a third or fourth offense are plead to a less serious charge. Offenders are often not sentenced to jail, and if they are it is typically for a minimal amount of time.

Victim advocate groups say more could be done to keep dangerous, repeat DUI offenders off the roads. They cite the fact that South Carolina ranks ninth in the nation for the percentage of fatal accidents involving alcohol (36%). Many of those drivers have been convicted of a previous DUI offense.

Laura Hudson, spokesperson for the South Carolina Victim Assistance Network says, "The system is getting lackadaisical."

There are several issues affecting the statistics and the decisions of judges and prosecutors. "Negotiated pleas are a fact of life," says prosecutor David Pascoe. "Can you imagine if you tried every DUI case? You wouldn’t move any other cases." Limited staff and court time competing with crimes such as murder and robbery means prosecutors often seek a plea bargain in DUI cases.

It is the judge’s discretion to accept or reject a plea bargain, but they often agree to lighter sentencing while citing issues like prison overcrowding and a full court docket. Repeat DUI offenders are more prone to receive probation when there were no traffic injuries and they cooperated with officers during their DUI arrest. Other factors include time between DUI arrests and whether the blood-alcohol level was close to the legal limit. A reduced plea typically comes with the requirement for alcohol abuse treatment.

South Carolina DUI defense attorneys argue that counseling rather than jail time has a greater impact drunk driving.

South Carolina has two laws on the books that were designed to reduce repeat DUI offenders, but they have not been used.

One law allows the South Carolina Motor Vehicles Department to seize license plates and vehicle registration. The department however has not processed numerous requests to address the over 3,000 repeat DUI offenders who have been sentenced to give up their plates and registration.

The second requires the State Law Enforcement Division to install alcohol detecting ignition interlocks on the vehicles of repeat DUI offenders. Due to a lack of funds to develop regulations for the installation of the devices, a six-year old intiative has not been
utilized.

The national anti-drunk driving organization MADD, says that the loopholes and the lack of enforcement of DUI laws have lead to the high drunk driving fatality statistics in South Carolina. It cites that there are eighteen states that prohibit or restrict plea bargains in DUI cases. MADD spokesperson Misty Moyse said South Carolina could save lives if it approached repeat DUI offenses like its neighboring states.

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