The powerful House Judiciary Committee likely will hold a scheduled hearing Tuesday on Emma’s Law, a bill aimed at getting tough on repeat drunken drivers and reducing the state’s soaring numbers of innocents killed by them.
Behind the scenes, partisans on both sides of the high profile bill, which supporters say has the proven potential to save hundreds of lives, were trying to work out a compromise.
“If there’s not an agreement, get ready for a knock-down, drag-out fight,” Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, a Judiciary member and key supporter of Emma’s Law, said Monday. The current version of the bill has a key provision that would require first time offenders with a blood alcohol content of .15 or greater who are convicted of DUI – or who plead guilty to DUI – to use an ignition interlock device. The device, already in use in 21 states as well as South Carolina for repeat DUI offenders, are mini-Breathalyzers that won’t let a person who’s been drinking operate his motor vehicle.
Last week, an amended version of Emma’s Law passed out of a Judiciary subcommittee, where it had been bottled up after passing in the State Senate in February 2013. The version passed by the group – dominated by lawyers who make all or part of their livelihoods representing DUI suspects in criminal and civil courts – appeared to make it easier for convicted drunken drivers to get back on the road and to generate more legal fees for those representing them, safety activists said.
“The new standards create even more opportunities for lawyers to line their pockets,” said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Victims’ Council.
But lawyer-legislator Rep. Chris Murphy, R-Dorchester, main author of last week’s amendments to Emma’s Law, strongly rejected that characterization Monday.
“It’s not an opportunity for lawyers to make money,” said Murphy, adding his measures were “common sense” initiatives designed to make Emma’s Law fairer and more consistent with existing state law.
For example, he said, one provision allows someone required to use an ignition interlock device, and who is caught up in an extraordinary circumstance such as a life-threatening incident, the right to appeal a punitive action taken against him if he’s caught, Murphy said.
“That’s just common due process – you should have the right to have a fair, impartial hearing officer determine whether or not you violated the ignition interlock device,” he said.
Safety activists also said a Murphy amendment that loosened the proposed standard of blood-alcohol percentage level from the proposed .12 to .15 means more convicted drunken drivers won’t have to use the ignition interlock device.
Murphy said he didn’t know why Emma’s Law supporters are upset that he got that new standard through the subcommittee.
“Their .12 number is an arbitrary number, and it’s not in our statutes,” Murphy said. The standard for legal impairment is .08, he noted, and .15 is in South Carolina’s law as another standard that applies to license suspension.
The bill as amended still cracks down on drunken drivers, Murphy said.
“We’re joining a lot of states. We’re on the front end of this. It will substantially curtail repeat offenders, which we desperately need in this state. Anybody saying my amendment weakens it hasn’t read my amendment.”
In 2012, with 358 deaths, South Carolina ranked seventh of the 50 states in sheer raw numbers of DUI deaths – not just as a percentage of the population, according to the national Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Defending DUIs is an estimated $100 million-plus business for South Carolina lawyers, who charge from $1,500 to $7,500 for a typical case. In a recent 12-month period, July 2012 to June 2013, some 30,000 DUI cases were brought in criminal and civil license suspension courts in South Carolina, according to the S.C. Court Administration and the Administrative Law Court.
Last week, more than 100 victims and their family members, along with ministers, safety activists, medical personnel and others jammed the subcommittee hearing room to demand a tougher law. Among those attending were family members of Emma Longstreet, 6, of Lexington, who was killed in 2012 by a repeat DUI offender and for whom Emma’s Law is named; and Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, whose 3-year-old grandnephew Josiah Jenkins, was killed in an accident earlier this month, also by a repeat offender.
Efforts to reach Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, author of Emma’s Law, were unsuccessful Monday.