In 2009, an amendment to South Carolina’s DUI laws required arresting agencies to video record any field sobriety testing during a DUI arrest. Prosecutors and law enforcement are now complaining that it is nearly impossible to convict a person of a DUI because the word “any” is being used as a loophole to get DUI cases thrown out.
Earlier this month, in a room at the South Carolina capitol, 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett presented examples of such cases to a crowd of over 100 people including lawmakers, advocates and law enforcement officials. The cases he presented never made it to a jury trial because of video “problems” such as the suspects’ feet being briefly obscured by the police cruisers’ hoods, shadows partially obscuring a person’s head, and a person’s back foot obscuring the view of their front foot as they perform field sobriety tests.
"A person could wreck into another vehicle, blow a .25 (BAC), have thrown up all over themselves and admit to drinking 20 beers over the course of the day," Assistant Solicitor Matthew Shelton explained to NBC Charlotte, "but if your feet are blocked by the officers patrol car hood during the field sobriety test, the case is being thrown out before it even goes to a jury. We’re not talking about just the video being tossed out as evidence. The whole case. A jury never gets to see the case."
I’ve written in the past on the need for transparency in DUI investigation and I am fully in favor of requiring law enforcement agencies to be equipped with dashboard cameras. You may remember my previous complaints, however, about law enforcement taking DUI suspects out of the view of the dash-cam to conduct field sobriety tests. In their police report, officers claim that suspects fail the field sobriety tests without an explanation as to how the suspect failed. Then, notwithstanding the officer’s report indicating that they failed, it is later determined that these DUI suspects were not actually driving under the influence.
The 2009 amendment was intended to prevent such devious methods of circumventing the transparency provided by a dash-cam.
This notion is lost on lawmakers as they have since introduced bill H.3441 into the South Carolina House. The proposed law changes the wording of the 2009 amendment to no longer require that any field sobriety test given be recorded. Additionally, the law would prevent a case from being totally dismissed due to a technicality in the video.
“When a law enforcement officer is investigating a person suspected of [driving under the influence] that officer or another officer participating in the investigation or arrest should make a reasonable attempt to video record the person’s conduct at the incident site and the breath test site.”
Furthermore, under the H.3441, the original words of the 2009 amendment “The video recording at the incident site must include any field sobriety test administered” are completely stricken.
If the investigating officer is unable to record the incident, they “shall submit a sworn affidavit” stating one or several enumerated justifications for not being able to do so.
Unfortunately, this proposed change once again opens the door to potential dishonesty by law enforcement in investigating DUIs. In my experience, officers are often dishonest in writing their police reports which, by law, must be truthful. If such is the case, what good is requiring them to submit an affidavit that the video was unavailable under the proposed law? Dishonesty is dishonest regardless of the title of the document.
There is nothing wrong with the 2009 amendment and if law enforcement and prosecutors want to convict people of driving under the influence, they need to do a better job adhering to the law.
The only thing to ensure accuracy and truthfulness in DUI investigations is actual transparency, not the promise of accuracy and truthfulness.