Emma’s Law DUI bill passes overwhelmingly in SC House

jmonk@thestate.comApril 2, 2014 

— Emma’s Law passed the S.C. House overwhelmingly Wednesday – in an unexpectedly lopsided 112 to 0 vote – after a year-long battle to get through that chamber.

The victory came after a lunchtime rally outside the State House and months of intense lobbying of state lawmakers and working behind the scenes to make sure various state agencies, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, were comfortable with details of the 48-page, often technical bill.

Wednesday’s victory came at a high price for Karen Longstreet, the mother of 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2012 and for whom the bill is named.

“I’m a selfish mom – I would rather have her here,” said Karen Longstreet, fighting back tears in the State House lobby.

“I would have liked to see her reach 7 and 8. I’d like to have seen her lose a tooth... . I miss those mommy kisses, and I miss not brushing her hair. I miss everything.”

David Longstreet, who in recent months visited some 35 counties to organize grassroots support for the bill, said Emma’s birthday is May 29 and the House passage “will neutralize some of the pain. The pain is terrible. There’s a little joy in this, but not a lot.”

The bill must now go back to the Senate for a second vote there, because of some changes made to it by the House. Approval is expected but not certain.

The bill, which targets hard-core drunk drivers, is the first significant effort in years to curb the state’s soaring drunken driving death rate.

Wednesday’s unexpectedly quick and unexpectedly unanimous vote – which followed about 20 minutes of nuts-and-bolts questions by lawmakers to floor leader Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington – came as a surprise. Tightening drunk driving laws is a hard sell in South Carolina, despite the fact that the state ranks among the top seven states in sheer numbers of people killed each year by drunk drivers.

“I was braced for a very long floor fight,” Quinn said.

Several members had been expected to try to amend the bill in controversial ways that could have jeopardized its chances of passage. Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, a lawyer, said he was going to offer amendments but was called away to court when the floor discussion began.

Following the vote, Quinn wept with happiness. He is a close friend of the Longstreet family.

Quinn first met the Longstreets on New Year’s Day 2012. He was in church that morning when repeat drunk driver Billy Patrick Hutto Jr. crashed into the Longstreets’ minivan right outside the building. Quinn then attended Emma’s funeral.

Since then, Quinn has worked with the Longstreets, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, who is the bill’s sponsor in the Senate, and others to craft Emma’s Law.

South Carolina’s current DUI laws contain numerous loopholes that let people charged with DUI delay or avoid trial, get off with light sentences and resume driving quickly. Representing accused and convicted DUIs is a booming, $100 million-plus annual business for attorneys in South Carolina. About 30,000 people are arrested each year for DUI.

If and when the Senate concurs with the House version, the bill would then go to the desk of Gov. Nikki Haley.

Supporters of Emma’s Law expect the governor, who is from Lexington County, to sign the bill. Haley’s office had no comment Wednesday.

Since Emma’s death, more than 500 people have been killed by drunk drivers in South Carolina without lawmakers taking any action to address the mounting carnage.

As written, Emma’s Law would require an ignition interlock device be hooked up to a car’s ignition for all first-offense drunken drivers who are convicted of, or who plead guilty to, a first offense DUI with a blood alcohol content of .15 or above.

That is almost twice the legal limit for impaired driving. They would keep it on for six months for a first offense. A second conviction – even for a .08 or greater – would keep it on for two years.

Anyone who wants to start the car must blow into the machine with a alcohol breath level of less than .02.

Ignition interlock devices are in use in 35 states. Studies say they help lower DUI-related fatalities.

Rep. Joe Neal, D-Richland, said following the vote that few potentially controversial bills attract such widespread support as Emma’s Law. “It crossed party lines, regional lines and racial lines,” Neal said.

Quinn said, “It’s a wonderful feeling, but a sad feeling too – if we had done this three-four years ago, how many people could have been saved. Every state that has done this has seen a reduction in DUI fatalities.”

Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, said intense lobbying across the state by pro-Emma’s Law people made the difference. “This is what happens when you put pressure on this body,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem John Courson, R-Richland, said Wednesday he expected the Senate would pass the new House version. “There’s a tremendous amount of public support for this.”

Several lawmakers said a letter sent to the 124 House members this week by David Longstreet and Columbia fire chief Aubrey Jenkins helped the bill’s quick passage Wednesday.

In their letter, Longstreet and Jenkins – whose 3-year-old nephew, Josiah, was killed in a car crash last month by a man police say is a repeat drunk driver – begged lawmakers to pass Emma’s Law quickly.

“Please work as one and adopt a piece of legislation that saves lives,” Longstreet and Jenkins wrote.

Reach Monk at (803) 771-8344.

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