South Carolina, a state that carries the unfortunate honor of having one of the highest rates of DUI-related deaths in the country, also has one of the most unique DUI laws in the country. But it’s not a law that you would have expected, such as a lower BAC limit or unusually high punishment for a DUI. Rather, the law requires that law enforcement video record all DUI stops.
The law and the repercussions for not following the law has led to law enforcement, prosecutors and even the media to call the law a “camera loophole” that allows drunk drivers “off the hook.”
This week, WBTW News13 reported on this so-called “loophole.”
News13 investigates: ‘Camera loophole’ still letting drunk drivers off the hook
May 9, 2019 – WBTW News13 – South Carolina’s per-mile rate of DUI fatalities is among the highest in the nation every year.
A report released last year ranks the Palmetto State second in the U.S. for drunk driving deaths.
Police and prosecutors say current state law is putting you and your family in danger, because drunk drivers that should be getting convictions are walking away scot-free.
They say one contributing factor is a loophole in the state’s DUI law. It’s called the “camera loophole.”
News13 investigated the camera loophole in 2016. Since then, there has been little effort to fix the law.
The South Carolina chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving released a three-year report last year. It found that DUI cases that were resolved in less than a year resulted in a 52 percent conviction rate compared to 33 percent in cases that dragged on for more than a year.
South Carolina law requires police to videotape DUI traffic stops. Any small misstep could jeopardize a case — if the driver stumbles out of frame, the driver’s feet can’t be seen, or the shot is too dark.
One video shows a Horry County officer giving a field sobriety test to a man who ran off the side of the road. He can’t walk in a straight line, and the officer said he also failed an eye test.
But because you can’t clearly see his face, Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson said this situation probably wouldn’t hold up in court.
“You’re not all the way on. Or, if your feet as you get closer to the car cut off for a second then that throws the case out,” Richardson said.
You read that correctly: a blip, static, or stumble doesn’t just get the video dismissed, it can get the whole case dropped.
PFC Shon McCluskey with the Myrtle Beach Police Department said a lot of effort goes into setting up the perfect shot.
“It is a process. We’ve actually joked around at times saying sometimes you feel like you have to have an entire live PD scene with you to get every aspect of the case to make sure that everything is perfect.”
McCluskey said he takes extra precaution to make sure his dash cam video frame is wide enough and that there is nothing blocking the shot. But some things are out of his control.
“We’re not working in perfect environments out here every day. It’s not always sunny, it’s not always calm. Sometimes it can be a little windy, it can be rainy.”
Efforts at the legislative level in recent years to change the video requirements have failed. Bills introduced in the House and Senate in 2015 adding more wiggle room to the video requirements never moved out of committees.
None have been introduced in the current session.
News13 asked Jimmy Richardson why little progress has been made.
“Some of my best friends are in the legislature,” Richardson replied, “So present company excluded, about 40 percent of our legislature are attorneys. Only two or three of them are former prosecutors, the other 39.9 percent are defense attorneys. And this is where defense attorneys make their money. So, I would suggest that’s probably why the law is so complicated.”
Attorney and South Carolina Senator Stephen Goldfinch said it’s so complicated, because lawmakers are trying to balance the constitutional rights of everyone.
“Even if they are the lowest of the low, the murderers, the DUI drivers that kill people, the people that none of us want to protect, we have a legal duty, a constitutional duty to protect,” Goldfinch said.
Goldfinch said video evidence isn’t being tossed out of cases as often as law enforcement and advocates claim, but he admitted there are problems with the law.
“There are cases out there that show us that there have been problems in past history in regards to the loophole that you’re talking about,” Goldfinch said. “And I think there are some cases where we could probably close that loophole on. But we’ve got to be careful not to interject ourselves into the middle of the court system and the judicial system and the province of the judge.
Richardson also said that closing any DUI loopholes may need to come from the judges instead of the lawmakers.
“Case law will probably be the way to change that, saying that it doesn’t have to be 100 percent, it’s what is reasonable under the circumstances,” Richardson said. “And just with those four or five words you fix the entire system.”
But is it really fair to call the South Carolina law a loophole?
The purpose of the law is transparency, plain and simple, and for good reason. At a time when the public trust in law enforcement is waning, due in large part to police getting caught engaging in less-than-honest interactions with people, transparency with law enforcement is absolutely essential.
I can tell you firsthand that there is a problem with law enforcement fabricating information in DUI police reports. I have personally handled a case where the police deliberately took a DUI suspect out of dashboard camera range to perform the field sobriety tests, stated in the police report that the suspect failed the tests, and then the person’s blood alcohol content later turned out to be only 0.02 percent, well below the legal limit and an extremely strong indication that the suspect was sober. When handling the case, the prosecutor, who I personally knew, admitted that this was a problem she had seen with several DUI cases.
Let me simplify what I’ve just said. The police deliberately tried concealing their own lie just to put someone in jail for a DUI when that person wasn’t even drunk!
This South Carolina law is not “loophole.” It is ensuring transparency to protect the rights of the public. And if people who are actually driving drunk are “let off the hook,” it’s not because there’s a problem with the law. Rather, it’s because there’s a problem with law enforcement’s ability to abide by the law.
Here are some suggestions: Give better training to your officers, invest in some better dash cam equipment, or better yet, get some body cameras.
Personally, and I hope you would agree, I would rather see law enforcement take a few extra steps towards ensuring transparency than see wrongful DUI arrests by police who just want to add a notch on their belt.