Crime & Courts

Politicians, activists, victims celebrate Emma’s Law at State House (+ video)

More than 100 people gathered in the State House downstairs lobby Wednesday to celebrate the passage and signing of Emma’s Law, the first bill the Legislature has passed in years targeting drunk drivers.

On hand were numerous officials, safety activists, victims’ relatives and others who had worked for the law.

Gov. Nikki Haley, who signed the bill several weeks ago, performed a ceremonial signing and gave two pens she used to David and Karen Longstreet, the parents of 6-year-old Emma Longstreet of Lexington, who was killed by a drunk driver in 2012 on her way to church.

Haley gave a third pen to LaToya Jenkins, the mother of 3-year-old Josiah Jenkins,who was killed earlier this year in a car crash caused by a man police say was a repeat drunk driver.

The bill is named for Emma Longstreet, but speakers also paid tribute to Josiah Jenkins. His grand uncle, Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, became one of the key lobbying forces to persuade lawmakers to pass the bill.

Since Emma Longstreet was killed by a repeat offender drunk driver in 2012, more than 500 other South Carolinians died because of drunk drivers.

It took an intense grass-roots lobbying effort to pressure lawmakers, especially in the S.C. House, to vote for the bill.

Until about a month ago, Emma’s Law was fiercely opposed by many defense lawyers, who can earn fat fees for representing drunk drivers in courts. The state’s laws contain provisions that allow various kinds of appeals and delaying actions that allow drunk drivers to get back on the road more easily than in some other states

At one point, Sen. Joel Lourie, D-Richland, quietly threatened to use his senatorial privilege to hold up any bill coming to the Senate from the House unless House members passed a bill. For years, Lourie has been a leading advocate for safety legislation in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, high-profile news accounts of dead children killed by drunk drivers made it clear to lawmakers there might be political costs in supporting a position that could be seen as favoring the rights of drunk drivers over the rights of children.

.A key provision in Emma’s Law will require, for the first time, that an interlock device be hooked up to a car’s ignition for all first-offense drunken drivers who plead guilty or are convicted and have a blood alcohol content of .15 or above.

That is almost twice the legal limit for impaired driving. The lock would stay 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 an alcohol breath level of less than .02.

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

Any driver who refuses to take a Breathalyzer test also will have to get an ignition interlock device before getting even a temporary license to drive.

Among others present at Wednesday’s signing were people who had lobbied lawmakers to pass the bill, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving, unpaid safety activist Laura Hudson, Attorney General Alan Wilson, S.C. Department of Public Safety director Leroy Smith, and S.C. Highway Patrol commander Col. MIchael Oliver.

Others on hand who had roles in the bill’s passage were Sens. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, and Larry Martin, R-Pickens, and Reps. Rick Quinn, R-Lexington, Kit Spires, R-Lexington, and Eddie Tallon, R-Spartanburg.

Emma’s Law takes effect Oct. 1.