SC money to prosecute DUI cases in jeopardy

12/30/2012 12:00 AM

12/29/2012 6:43 PM

South Carolina’s state troopers will have to start prosecuting their own drunken-driving cases again if state lawmakers do not replace grant money that will run out in mid-2013.

The state’s 16 county prosecutors are asking for an additional $1.6 million to pay for prosecutors to handle the state’s 28,000 DUI cases every year.

Gov. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, included the money in her $6.3 billion proposed budget earlier this month.

But state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of a subcommittee that oversees law-enforcement agency budgets, said, “I don’t know that we will have the money to honor it this particular year.”

Law enforcement officials say the prosecutors help police officers, who are not trained attorneys and often are pitted against defense attorneys who specialize in DUI cases.

“They file numerous motions to try to get the case dismissed, and it is hard for an officer to be up on the case and know how to argue motions and that kind of thing on their own,” said David Ross, executive director of the state Prosecution Coordination Commission, the agency that is requesting the money.

In 2010, 44 percent of all driving deaths in South Carolina involved an alcohol-impaired driver, the highest percentage in the country. A year later, that number fell to 38 percent, down but still the seventh-highest rate in the country, according to the S.C. Office of Highway Safety.

“We attribute that back to an emphasis in DUI enforcement,” including the prosecutors, said Phil Riley, director of the Office of Highway Safety.

DUI arrests have increased from around 20,000 in 2008 to around 26,000 in 2011. Preliminary numbers for 2012 indicate around 26,000 DUI arrests again this year, according to Col. Mike Oliver with the state Highway Patrol.

This is the second year in a row that state prosecutors have asked lawmakers for more money to hire specialized prosecutors.

In July, lawmakers approved an extra $1.6 million to pay for prosecutors to handle criminal domestic-violence cases in the state budget.

But lawmakers had an extra $1.4 billion to spend in the 2012-13 budget, which ends June 30. Lawmakers only have an extra $190 million in recurring money to spend in the fiscal year that starts July 1. And, with so many state agencies requesting budget increases, Pitts says he does not think the state will have enough money to pay for the DUI prosecutors.

Pitts, a former police officer, said he is not concerned about state troopers prosecuting their own cases.

“They did it for years and did a good job of it,” he said. “As a police officer, I did the same thing.”

The real problem, Pitts said, is the “number of loopholes put in the DUI law” that defense attorneys can exploit.

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