PICKENS COUNTY — A court monitoring report was recently released by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) South Carolina that focused on the 5th and 13th Judicial Circuits.
The report provides specific data on the outcomes of DUI cases in certain courts, including Pickens County, and aims to highlight “several problems with enforcing and prosecuting DUI in South Carolina.”
According to the report, the agency’s data was collected from court hearings held in the first nine months of 2016. All cases stemmed from DUI arrests in the counties of Richland and Kershaw (5th circuit), and Greenville and Pickens (13th circuit).
Cases were monitored by staff or volunteers in the courtroom or online, the report states.
“The 5th Judicial Circuit and 13th Judicial Circuit showed very different approaches to DUI prosecution,” the findings read. “All of the cases monitored for the 13th Circuit were prosecuted by an attorney with the Solicitor’s Office, whereas all or most of the cases monitored for the 5th Circuit were prosecuted by the arresting officer.”
Other states do not allow DUI cases to be prosecuted by law enforcement officers, the report notes.
Once all the raw data was compiled and analyzed by MADD agents, it was revealed that although not a common practice in other states, when DUI cases are tried by the arresting officer, there tends to be a higher conviction rate.
The findings state for the 13th Circuit, prosecuted by solicitors, 48 percent of the 334 cases with a final determination ended with the accused being found guilty. Another 44 percent were pleaded down to reckless driving.
For the 5th Circuit, prosecuted by the arresting officers, 88 percent of the 94 cases with a final determination ended with the accused being found guilty. The other 12 percent were pleaded down to reckless driving.
“The data suggest that arresting officers achieve DUI convictions at a higher rate. However, another possible contributing factor is the higher percentage of cases closed in Greenville County (81 percent), compared to 22 percent of cases with a final determination in Richland County and 38 percent in Kershaw County,” the organization states. “In Richland and Kershaw counties, it was very common for the accused to request a jury trial, which extends the process and can cause complications with getting an eventual conviction.”
Nationally, MADD’s 2017 national court monitoring report shows a combined conviction rate of 68 percent for the jurisdictions within the 11 states that entered court monitoring data into the agency’s national database.
“We began this court monitoring project for a specific reason — everybody in the system that enforces and prosecutes DUIs felt the system was broken and even a joke,” said Steven Burritt, state director of MADD South Carolina. “The thought that there are communities where half or more of those arrested for DUI are only ending up with reckless driving charges shouldn’t make us feel safe. We can do better.”
The organization asserts the state of S.C. makes the arrest investigation and prosecution of DUI cases “far too difficult” — a scenario which MADD claims leads to a high rate of plea bargains to lesser charges.
The agency’s main point of contention? Dash cam video.
“The primary concern is (S.C.’s) dash cam arrest video statute that sets a difficult standard and is considered a required piece of evidence, which is unlike other states based on all discussions we have had,” a MADD spokesperson said. “The law should be revised so that an imperfect video recording does not mean that there is no chance of a conviction.”
“We are not against using dash cam videos in prosecuting DUIs, and our partners are generally not calling for that either,” said Burritt. “However, it is one piece of evidence. There are going to be issues with the quality of dash cam video in the middle of the night on the side of the road, maybe at a chaotic crash scene.”
Despite the higher conviction rate, MADD is also raising concerns over the practice of officers prosecuting their own cases.
“It is not the focus of their training and the public has the expectation that officers are out enforcing laws rather than preparing for and prosecuting in court,” the agency said. “They are often facing experienced DUI defense attorneys, which is a mismatch in terms of legal skills.”
“The ideal for us is a legally trained prosecutor with experience in the very complex area of DUI with the determination to see DUI convictions and not to plea down easily,” said Burritt.
According to the organization, MADD SC will continue the court room monitoring of the 5th and 13th judicial circuits into 2018 to determine whether the initial findings remain consistent.
Reach Kasie Strickland at 864-855-0355.