Crime & Courts

New study has SC near the top in DUI deaths, as window closes for Legislative fixes

Living the consequences of a bad choice

Brian and Jennifer Setree lost their grandfather, Roger Wayne Johnson, to a collision with a drunk driver in 2017 in Lexington.
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Brian and Jennifer Setree lost their grandfather, Roger Wayne Johnson, to a collision with a drunk driver in 2017 in Lexington.

Brian Setree remembers driving past a crash on the way to Lexington Medical Center in January 2017. He had just gotten a phone call telling him his grandfather had been brought to the hospital, and that Setree needed to get there quickly.

“I sure hope this has nothing to do with —” Setree, his voice trailing off, recalled saying as they drove past the swarm of police cars and officers the night of Jan. 5, 2017. “And I kind of just had that feeling.”

Sadly, his feeling was correct. At the hospital, he learned that crash had killed his grandfather, 75-year-old Roger Wayne Johnson, and injured Setree’s daughter.

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Roger Wayne Johnson was killed in 2017 after a drunk driver ran a red light and hit the vehicle he was driving. Brian Setree

“He was my rock,” Setree said of Johnson, who raised Setree and his younger brother. Johnson, who was a school crossing guard, loved Nascar, fishing and the South Carolina Gamecocks. He also was known for cooking, including making peanut butter fudge from scratch.

“He taught me life lessons and gave me a chance to do anything with my life.”

Nicole Wilson, a special education teacher at Rocky Creek Elementary School in Lexington, had been drinking at a kickball tournament earlier that day, a Thursday, and continued drinking at D’s Wings in Cayce before she got behind the wheel of her car, prosecutors have said. She ran through a red light and plowed into Johnson’s car on Sunset Boulevard near Interstate 20, as Johnson made his way home after picking up his great-granddaughter from work at Applebee’s in Harbison.

Three hours after the deadly crash, Wilson’s breath-alcohol concentration was .20 — more than twice the legal limit to drive in South Carolina, prosecutors said.

‘Always among the very worst’

Setree and his wife, Jennifer, who own a private investigations firm in Lexington, say his grandfather might still be alive if one of two pending bills in the state legislature aimed at curbing DUI fatalities had been the law at the time.

S. 346 would require bartenders, waiters, waitresses and others who serve alcohol to attend mandatory training and receive a state permit in order to serve. Introduced in the S.C. Senate in January, the bill passed the Senate earlier this month with a vote of 41-0 and has been sent to the House, where it remains in the Judiciary Committee.

Another bill, S. 18, would require ignition interlock devices for all convicted DUI offenders and anyone seeking a provisional driver’s license after being accused of DUI. Both bills passed the Senate and moved on to the House, but with the end of this year’s legislative session just weeks away, the window to pass them is closing.

Unfortunately, the Setrees’ story isn’t unusual in South Carolina. A study released this week ranked South Carolina among the worst states for DUI fatality rates.

Using data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Fatality Analysis Reporting System and the FBI, the study by Alcohol.org found that in 2017, South Carolina had a DUI fatality rate of 6.3 per 100,000 residents, second behind only Wyoming.

About one-third of the fatalities on South Carolina’s roadways each year are caused by DUI, The State reported in February.

“Almost any way you slice and dice South Carolina ... we are almost always among the very worst in the nation” for DUI fatalities, said Steven Burritt, executive director of the S.C. chapter for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, an anti-DUI advocacy organization. “We have too many loopholes and hurdles for law enforcement to jump to make the case properly, and then we don’t adequately staff prosecutions, so we have a lot of places where officers do their own prosecution.”

‘A 4,000-pound bullet’

Teaching servers and bartenders how to pour drinks — but not how to recognize when someone has had too much, or how to cut them off — is “like giving a police officer all these weapons and saying ‘we’re not gonna train you, so go out and do your job,’” said Setree, a former Cayce police officer and Lexington County sheriff’s deputy.

“We were taught when you fire your weapon, you are criminally, civilly and every other kind of way responsible for that projectile coming out of that weapon,” he said. “Same thing when you put an intoxicated person behind the wheel of a vehicle — that’s a 4,000-pound bullet riding down the road. You have to have accountability and education. You have to shift the culture.”

Jennifer Setree, who worked as a bartender in both Carolinas, noted that employees serving alcohol in North Carolina must have a license, but not in South Carolina. She also was alarmed after moving to South Carolina to see bartenders and servers consuming alcohol while on the job.

“If there’s a law in the books that I don’t know about, it’s not being enforced,” Brian Setree said. “You can go into several of these restaurants and bars, and the servers and bartenders are more intoxicated than the people they’re serving, and how can they use discretion?”

‘We remain hopeful’

While MADD is urging state lawmakers to pass both anti-DUI bills, Burritt said the group’s preference is for the all-offender ignition interlock.

“The research could not be more clear, that the states that use interlock have the lowest rate of DUI fatalities,” Burritt said of the 33 other states that have similar laws. “We’ve got to be 34th. We need to be next in line.”

Anyone who is charged with DUI in South Carolina but refuses to submit to a breath test for alcohol concentration automatically gets their license suspended. But under the state’s current laws — which critics say are laden with loopholes that help offenders get back on the road quickly or get their cases tossed out altogether — someone whose license is suspended for refusing a breath sample during a DUI arrest can get a provisional alcohol license and be back behind the wheel within days of their arrest.

Under the Senate proposal, anyone who refuses a breath sample but wants to get a provisional license would have to agree to using an ignition interlock device.

The current ignition interlock proposal is a more robust version of Emma’s Law, a 2014 law that requires DUI offenders convicted of having a blood-alcohol content of .15 or more to use the interlock devices, even if it is their first offense. The law was named after Emma Longstreet, a 6-year-old Lexington County girl who was killed when a drunk driver crashed into her family’s car as they headed to church on New Year’s Day 2012.

Despite the praise and progress Emma’s Law has generated, a 2017 report from MADD shows that attorneys are undermining the law by using the ignition interlock device as a “bargaining chip” in plea deals, leading to defendants getting out of the requirement to have the device.

“As much as we were excited about that positive step forward ... even at the time, we knew (Emma’s Law) wasn’t the strongest it could be,” Burritt said. “We knew it was the strongest we could get passed.”

The window for passing the two latest anti-DUI laws is closing because the the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year in just a few weeks.

“We remain hopeful,” said S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who is a sponsor on both bills. “I think we have gotten good indications from the majority of the House that they’re going to be supportive.”

With it being a two-year session, Hutto said even if the bills don’t get passed this year, they won’t have to start all over and reintroduce the bills in the new year. Still, he said, “six months worth of saving lives is too important to let them sit on the calendar.”

‘Once again, another loved one’

Brian Setree had only just learned of his grandfather’s passing that night at Lexington Medical Center when he had to go to his bed-ridden grandmother, who was put on hospice care earlier that day, and break the news to her.

It was tragic case of déjà vu for Setree, whose brother was killed by a drunk driver in August 1994. A Cayce Public Safety officer at the time, Setree had just arrested someone for DUI and was at headquarters when the calls about a bad crash on I-26 began flooding the 911 center.

A lieutenant confirmed to Setree that his brother had been in the car, and he then had to go tell his family.

“And then, I had to do it once again, another loved one,” Setree said, recalling the flashbacks to that night in 1994 when he had to go notify his grandmother of her husband’s passing in 2017.

Setree said he has forgiven Wilson, who pleaded guilty last year to felony DUI and was sentenced to seven years in prison. The only issue he had with the proceeding was that the judge took two weeks after her plea to impose the sentence.

“We lost forever,” he said. “And, of course, her life is forever changed.”

Change the culture. Have a plan.

Setree and his wife support both proposals being considered by the General Assembly. But at some point, Setree said, curbing drunken driving becomes an issue of self-control and personal responsibility rather than criminal intent.

“Ms. Wilson didn’t wake up (the day of the crash) a criminal, a felon or anything,” he said. “She woke up a very loving, hard-working, real respected school teacher (with) a loving family, a loving daughter, a loving sister and great friends.”

DUI offenders aren’t like hardened criminals who target people in robberies, assaults or other violent offenses, Setree said. Rather, they drive impaired and, after making it home without wrecking or hurting someone the first time, they continue to do it, he said.

Research shows that first-time DUI offenders have driven drunk, on average, 80 times before their first arrest, The State reported in 2017.

“There are a lot of Ms. Wilsons out there,” he said. “I mean someone that wakes up a normal person and they go to bed facing a felony. People need to recognize that and control themselves.”

During an interview with The State after his brother’s death in 1994, Setree said he wanted to share his brother’s story to get a message to parents to teach their kids about moderation and responsibility.

Setree said the culture around alcohol consumption needs to be changed. He and his wife say that includes instilling in young people not just that drinking and driving is illegal, but to have a plan in case they go somewhere and consume alcohol.

“The law says you cannot do this, and if you do you’re breaking the law,” he said. “But for the 5 percent of you that’s gonna break the law, what’s your plan? What are you gonna do?”

Too much of the education focuses only on the legal ramifications of driving drunk, Jennifer Setree added.

“Keep yourself safe. Have a plan,” she said. “That’s what they really need to teach is to have a plan and not just, ‘It’s wrong.’”

Setree said his grandfather would want that.

“He’d be upset and would want proper punishment or whatever for someone who had done something wrong, but he would also have compassion and he would want to prevent the next person from getting in that situation,” Setree said. “He was all about fixing problems, and if a problem did come up, then what are we gonna do next?”

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