A stronger version of Emma’s Law on Tuesday passed the powerful House Judiciary Committee.
The next stop for the get-tough-on-DUIs bill: the House floor. All 124 members will vote on it. That could happen as early as next week.
Just before the vote, committee member Rep. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, reminded lawmakers that innocent South Carolinians continue to die at the hands of drunk drivers.
“Every weekend, there’s another tragedy,” Quinn said. “In Cherokee, last weekend, there was a 19-year-old boy who killed a mother and her daughter.”
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South Carolina has one of the nation’s highest death tolls from drunken drivers — every year, far more people die than the 239 people on board the missing Malaysian jet. In 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, 358 South Carolinians died at the hands of drunk drivers.
Tuesday’s final vote by 22 House Judiciary members was 22-0.
Main features of this latest version of Emma’s Law would:
• Require drivers who blow a 0.15 on a Breathalyzer and who later are convicted of, or who plead guilty to, first-offense driving under the influence of alcohol to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicles for a year. The device won’t let someone drive a car if he has been drinking.
• Require DUI first-offenders who refuse to be tested on a Breathalyzer after being stopped, and who are later found guilty of first-offense DUI, to install an ignition interlock device on their vehicle. No provisional licenses will be granted to people who refuse a Breathalyzer test and who later are convicted.
• Close loopholes that would have made it much easier for people convicted of drunk driving to get back — by having their lawyers mount various appeals — on the road without having to use an ignition interlock device.
Studies have shown where ignition interlocks are in widespread use, DUI-related fatalities drop significantly, according to studies analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some 20 states require ignition interlocks on first-offense DUI if the offender blows 0.08 on a Breathalyzer, and 15 others require ignition interlocks on first offense at a 0.15 level, according to bill supporter Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Victims’ Council.
In South Carolina, ignition interlocks are now in use, but only for multiple DUI offenders. Some 700-plus are now in use, according to the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Emma’s Law — named after Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old Lexington County girl killed by a repeat offender drunk driver in 2012 — was passed by the Senate in 2013.
Since then, it has been stalled in a House judiciary subcommittee, four of five of whose members are lawyers. Supporters of the bill have criticized South Carolina’s DUI-related court system, which under current law offers lawyers for DUI suspects multiple avenues of appeal and ways to get driver’s licenses back.
Getting DUI offenders back on the road is a $100 million-plus legal business for lawyers in South Carolina. That estimate comes from state statistics on the number of DUI cases in state courts each year — more than 30,000 — multiplied by the estimated fees for an average DUI case.
On Tuesday, however, lawyers on the lawyer-dominated (17 of 25 members are lawyers) House Judiciary Committee provided the crucial votes both to beat back an amendment Emma’s Law supporters said might doom the bill, as well as to pass the bill on to the House floor.
That amendment, offered by lawyer-legislator Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, would have offered all DUI first offenders, past and present, the right to get their DUI conviction expunged from their records if they used the ignition interlock device. Rutherford said that if Emma’s Law supporters really believe the ignition interlock is a good thing, his bill offers a way to greatly expand the device’s usage.
But opponents of that amendment said after the meeting that Rutherford’s amendment would have had the effect of a “poison pill” — a term used for a change in a bill that might sound good on its face, but would have the effect of causing lawmakers to vote the bill down.
“I fear this would kill the bill — that may not be your intention, but it would,” Quinn said during the meeting. “Let’s not fool ourselves.”
After passing the House, Emma’s Law with any changes has to go back to the state Senate for re-passage.
Any new House changes, such as the mass possible erasings of DUI criminal records that Rutherford proposed, were sure to be objected to by some senators because they wouldn’t have had a chance to study the ramifications of such a change, Quinn said.
And in the Senate, one senator can derail a bill’s final passage, said Quinn. Quinn consulted with Emma’s Law’s chief sponsor, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, before making his comments.
In the end, on a dramatic roll call vote, the 22 Judiciary Committee members voted 11-11 on Rutherford’s amendment. The tie vote meant his amendment failed. Voting to kill the amendment were seven lawyer-legislators. If only one had changed his or her vote, Rutherford’s amendment might have passed.
One of the crucial lawyers’ votes was that of influential Judiciary chairman Rep. Greg Delleney, R-Chester. Before the vote, Delleney told committee members where he stood.
After the vote, Lourie was pleased. “The most important thing was keeping the bill clean, and keeping it moving — we did that. Chairman Delleney’s comments helped a lot.”
In the past 24 hours, Delleney was one of a handful of lawmakers who worked with supporters of Emma’s Law to hammer out a version that could pass Judiciary. Also providing input were the S.C. departments of Motor Vehicles and Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.
Rutherford’s amendment might have merit as a stand-alone bill, but it was too technical for senators to accept without wanting to have a hearing on it, Lourie said. This late in the legislative session, that delay would have killed the bill, Lourie said.
David Longstreet, Emma’s father, said he has been traveling the state, urging people to contact their legislators. “I think lawmakers are hearing from their constituents,” he said.