Crime & Courts

How this one thing is undermining Emma’s Law

What is Emma’s Law and how does it affect someone convicted of DUI in SC?

Named after Lexington 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, the 2014 law requires the installation of device on vehicles of first-offense drunk drivers.
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Named after Lexington 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, the 2014 law requires the installation of device on vehicles of first-offense drunk drivers.

A just-released MADD report on South Carolina’s DUI arrests and prosecutions says that Emma’s Law, passed in 2014 to save lives and crack down on drunk drivers, is being sabotaged.

Emma’s Law is supposed to require DUI offenders convicted of having a blood alcohol content of .15 or more – even if they are first-time offenders – to use a Ignition Interlock Device. That device hooks up to an offender’s ignition and requires the offender to pass an alcohol breath test before the vehicle can start.

“Getting out of the Ignition Interlock Device requirement is the new bargaining chip in DUI pleas,” the MADD study says.

“These type of arrangements eliminate the life-saving impact of the (Ignition Interlock Device) program,” the study says.

Emma’s Law is named after Emma Longstreet, 6, of Lexington County who was killed by a drunk driver on New Year’s Day 2012, a Sunday, as her family was driving to church. A repeat DUI offender who had been drinking all night slammed into the Longstreet van, killing her instantly. It took more than two years of hard lobbying by citizens groups and the Longstreet family to get the law passed.

The main conclusion of the 30-page MADD SC study was that “South Carolina makes the arrest, investigation and prosecution of DUI cases far too difficult.”

The report was made public early Tuesday by the state chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

“We deserve better,” the report said.

The report also recommended that openness be stressed in the state’s DUI courts. Public observation of how case outcomes are arrived at is essential, it said.

“There is a concerning lack of visibility of the handling of cases in certain courts we monitor, to the extent that we cannot monitor them as everything is worked out ‘in the back’ and the final decisions are not even announced in open court,” the report said.

Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims Council, applauded the study and its findings about Emma’s Law.

“We need to have people on this ignition interlock device because we know from other states it really does alter behavior,” Hudson said.

Many of the groups that form part of DUI prosecution system – officers, prosecutors, judges and magistrates – are doing the “absolute best they can given their resources and circumstances,” the report says. “However, we call upon those groups, and the Legislature, to do more because S.C. continues to rank toward the bottom of states in regard to drunk driving.”

South Carolina consistently has one of the highest rates of alcohol-impaired vehicle fatalities in the nation, according to the study. “Research shows that the first time DUI offender has driven drunk an average of 80 times prior to their first arrest,” the report says.

The report, which relied on trained volunteers to monitor courts and collect related data, focused on cases in the 5th Judicial Circuit of Kershaw and Richland counties and the 13th Judicial Circuit of Greenville and Pickens counties. Those are two of the three circuits in the state that have the highest DUI-related fatality and injury collisions.

The time period of 832 cases monitored in the study was from Jan. 1, 2016, to Sept. 30, 2016. The report is the first phase of what will be a three-year study. Over three years, far more data will be collected, allowing researchers to include the results of 379 cases that were begun, but had no final court outcome, during the nine months studied.