FEATURE ‌ Drinking and Driving, Per Se 

Lenient state laws promote slack compliance and widespread acceptance of one deadly practice

click to enlarge Mt. Pleasant police check for illegal activity at an impromptu "roadblock party" between Highway 17 and Coleman Boulevard
  • Mt. Pleasant police check for illegal activity at an impromptu "roadblock party" between Highway 17 and Coleman Boulevard

It was a cold Thursday night in Mt. Pleasant when Pfc. Andrew Harris got in his cop car, which smelled like a $3 Kmart air freshener. With an American flag hanging from the overhead light and his Sirius radio tuned to channel 61 — Prime Country — Harris buckled his seatbelt and put on his navy Mt. Pleasant Police Department (MPPD) ball cap.

The clock read 8 p.m. and "the permanent DUI shift guy" was ready to drive 70 to 100 miles in circles around his jurisdiction, looking for perps.

Harris says he's pulled over every kind of person there is for drinking and driving, and he'll never understand why people drive under the influence.

"If there's one DUI, it's one too many. People just think they're going to get away with it," he says, adding that he's never thrown back a few before driving.

But some people do drink and drive, and get away with it. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that an estimated 90 million car trips will be made by impaired drivers each year nationwide. Only about 1.5 million of those trips will result in the driver's arrest.

"There is no answer for why people drink and drive," says MPPD Sergeant Donnie Quick. "They just do it. They think they can get away with it, and they do for a long time. Then there's that one time where they run off the road and hit something or hit somebody, and that's it.

"If I knew the answer to make people quit drinking and driving, I could make a million dollars."

When asked what could be done to deter this problem, Quick replies, "It's gotta be education."

Awareness, too, he says, which is why he and his "permanent DUI shift guy" and eight other MPPD patrolmen met on a recent, random Thursday night on Bowman Road to set up some orange cones.

They were going to throw themselves a roadblock party on a popular cut-through for Highway 17 and Coleman Boulevard.

IIHS reports that "sobriety checkpoints are probably the most effective deterrence strategy" for drinking and driving.

Equipped with glowing red flashlights that look like they belong on an airplane runway, these men in black waved down passersby to ask for licenses and to take a quick look inside cars, checking for seatbelt usage and other traffic violations.

Quick says he and his guys perform roadblocks as often as they can. They like for Mt. Pleasant roadway travelers to know the MPPD is there, watching and waiting for someone to think he or she is above the law.

On this night, after standing for an hour in the cold, Harris wrote two tickets for open containers: a Budweiser bottle and a Busch Light can.

Another officer asked an 18-year-old to pour out the Natural Light cans he had stowed away in a cooler in the back of his truck.

Pfc. A.J. Santos performed an extensive field sobriety test on a woman driving her family home after she accidentally revved her engine while Santos examined her license.

She told him she had enjoyed two martinis that night, but after Santos made her recite the alphabet from D to P, do a one-leg stand while counting to 30, and walk the line, he checked her eyes for involuntary jerking through a Horizontal Gaze Nystagmus test (the "follow the pen with your eyes, not your head" technique). He says he knew she had probably had at least four martinis but concluded she was only borderline drunk and gave her a warning. She thanked him before she drove away in her Ford F-150.

Her level of intoxication was nothing to ruin her night over, Santos says.

In 2005, the MPPD was awarded the Agency DUI Hero Award by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the S.C. Department of Public Safety for a DUI enforcement effort that resulted in 274 arrests.

Twenty-one-year-old downtown resident Robert Benson says he doesn't like to drive in Mt. Pleasant because of all the police. Still, he says he drinks and drives home from bars and parties far more often than choosing to find a designated driver.

"It's a bitch to get a ride," he says. "There aren't people that don't drink that go to bars, and what? Call a cab? I just spent my last $10 on liquor drinks."

He's not proud that he drinks and drives, though, and says he knows it's wrong and hates the idea that innocent people get caught in the crossfire.

"But when you never get caught and there's never been any consequences, why not do it?" Benson says. "Once I do get caught, my perspective will change."

He has friends who were in a near-fatal alcohol-related crash. The truck they were driving flipped a few times on the interstate. Everyone in the car ended up in the hospital. Benson says one guy almost died, but that he's back on the roads, drinking and driving at least three nights a week.

"Maybe we just need to grow up," he says.

Benson also thinks local police officers need to up the ante on drinking and driving if the residents of this college town want students to grasp the seriousness of the matter. If he were reading about DUIs and hearing about more people getting "popped," he says he would probably curb his DUI tendencies, but he thinks Charleston police, especially downtown, have bigger things to worry about.

Lt. Chip Searson with the City of Charleston Police Dept. says the city places a high priority on drunk driving, with a squad tasked specifically to DUI enforcement that often works late hours as the bars close.

"They've gotten away with it in the past, so they think it's no big deal," Searson says of the perception that the cops aren't out there. But he notes the danger isn't getting caught, it's getting killed. "You shouldn't do it. If not for yourself, for your family."

Executive director of the S.C. Sheriff's Association Jeffrey Moore says, "Sometimes I joke that in South Carolina, people think it's their constitutional right to drink and drive."

Moore quotes a MADD statistic that says before some people get caught, they'll probably have driven drunk 88 times in previous instances.

"Obviously, we have a drinking problem," Moore says. "Why should a state our size still be in the top one, two, three states with the worst driving records?"

How Many Have to Die Before S.C. Gets Serious about Its DUI Laws?

Visit the S.C. Department of Transportation website and click on "Highways or Dieways." Words designed to look creepy read, "South Carolina's roads are among the most dangerous and deadly in the country." According to MADD, 464 people died last year in alcohol-related crashes in South Carolina, which accounted for 42 percent of all traffic deaths. Twenty-one of those deaths occurred in Charleston County.

There are two kinds of drinking and driving laws in South Carolina: the DUI per se law and the DUI state law. A person cannot be tried under both laws for the same incident.

Moore explains that the DUI per se law is what the federal government requires a state to mandate in order to receive highway funding. The per se law simply states that a person with a 0.08 blood alcohol concentration, by law, is impaired and should be convicted of a DUI under normal circumstances.

The South Carolina DUI state law asserts that a DUI is a BAC of 0.10 and above, says Moore. The state law has the same punishment as the per se law, but higher levels of proof are required for conviction.

Moore says South Carolina's per se law is so badly structured that most law enforcement agencies use the DUI state law, noting that the federal government is currently evaluating South Carolina's implementation of the per se law. Federal officials may come back to South Carolina and say the state's use of the per se law is not acceptable.

"We're standing to lose millions of highway dollars," he says.

So he and other representatives from various state agencies and organizations involved with highway safety are spearheading a campaign to rewrite the DUI law, which will be presented to the General Assembly on Jan. 9. The last time Moore and the S.C. Impaired Driving Prevention Council (SCIDPC) proposed legislation in the 2005-06 session, their bill was never taken into consideration.

But the S.C. Department of Public Safety asked them to try, try again. The council plans to vote on the new bill that will be presented to the assembly around the same time this article hits the streets.

As the council's legislative committee chairman, Moore says he wants a fairer law that will allow a fairer chance to prosecute perpetrators, and he's not the only person who recognizes that a change needs to be made.

Mt. Pleasant town solicitor Ira Grossman says defense attorneys had a hand in writing the DUI laws of today, which is why the state DUI law is so ambiguous.

"I don't know of any other state that does that. Defense attorneys should have no part in writing DUI laws," Grossman says. "They want to create loopholes to get their clients off."

South Carolina is also the only state Moore is aware of that has the arresting officer act as DUI prosecutor in a court of law. Twenty-five-year-old police officers are at a disadvantage in court when facing a veteran defense attorney. While some law enforcement agencies have the personnel to send solicitors to try cases, very few have enough prosecutors dedicated to taking on DUI cases unless they're felonies, Moore says.

According to The Greenville News, when Gov. Mark Sanford announced on Nov. 21 that he would push for more stringent DUI laws, he said that 40 percent of those charged with DUIs pleaded to lesser offenses. Sixty percent of those charged with third or fourth offense DUI pleaded to lesser charges.

And the 0.08 BAC level is worthless to prosecutors in this state, Grossman says, because juries have to consider field sobriety tests to judge a person's impairment.

"The law's complexity makes it difficult for juries to hear an unvarnished view of the evidence," he says.

Grossman says another issue in South Carolina law is that the state requires videotaping of field sobriety tests, the actual arrest, and during BAC tests back at the station. In addition, the state legislature has required that the Miranda rights be read three times during the DUI arrest process.

"We only Mirandize a person once for murder," Moore says.

If an officer misses a step, the whole case could be thrown out.

The first time a person is read Miranda rights is before the field sobriety test, which is not constitutionally required, according to Grossman. The Supreme Court struck this necessity down, but South Carolina legislators wrote it back into the state's law for added citizen protection.

States have the right to make laws more restrictive than Supreme Court law, but Grossman says adding more provisions to laws only creates additional complications, making laws harder for police to enforce.

"There was a law created but it was so watered down by defense attorneys in legislature that it's worthless to prosecutors," he says. "In my opinion, the laws need to be simplified and penalties need to be strengthened."

Moore and members of the council agree; the new bill they're drafting has removed certain objectionable language that impedes enforcement and prosecution and is proposing 25 amendments to the law.

The most drastic plan, modeled after a Pennsylvania statute that Moore says resulted in a 33 percent drop in DUI arrests, is to change DUI consequences to a tiered 16-penalty structure based on a the-higher-they-blow, the-more-they-should-be-punished ideology. The law currently has only four tiered punishments, based on how many DUI convictions a person has received in the past 10 years (see a breakdown of the current law and the proposed one on p. 14).

Moore also wants to remove the Miranda reading conducted before field sobriety tests. In addition, under current law, when someone is convicted of a DUI, he or she is required to attend the Alcohol and Drug Safety Action Program (ADSAP) to get his or her license back. If he or she doesn't want to drive again, the class isn't necessary. Moore wants to change that. He thinks everyone should have to attend ADSAP when found guilty of driving under the influence in order for a behavioral change to take place.

"Right now we have a one-size-fits-all penalty," Moore says, and he wants the crime to equal the punishment.

Early Education Targets High Schoolers

South Carolina has over 30,000 square miles for patrol teams to cover, and there isn't a paint-by-number master plan to prevent impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel.

So some local officials are preaching the dangers of driving drunk before the habit is formed, and they're going after high school students.

They know teenagers drink.

They sneak alcohol into football games in water bottles, says East Roper Hospital stroke and trauma coordinator Theresa Willis, who's had to confront her own children when alcohol turned up missing from her liquor cabinet. Underage drinkers slurped down 12.2 percent of all alcohol sold in South Carolina in 2005 according to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol. Willis says it's unrealistic to think kids won't experiment, and if they're going to try new things, she'd rather them practice responsibly.

She's tired of seeing kids get zipped up in body bags, which is why the High School Injury Prevention Coalition was created four years ago.

For three years, only West Ashley High School had a DUI Awareness Program that put night vision drunk goggles on students and had them navigate a golf cart through a driving course. Seniors were also given field sobriety tests by police officers and asked to perform other simple tasks like picking up coins and playing catch while wearing drunk goggles that simulate impairment of around 0.17 BAC — twice the legal limit.

While they're sober enough to know better, Willis thinks it's important that teenagers see the effects three or four beers can have on a person.

Because of the program's innovation, the coalition decided to spread its influence to three other high schools in Charleston this year.

"If we can save one life, it's worth it," EMS project officer Denise Saxton says. "And I think we're getting through to more people than we think."

According to statistics, inexperienced drivers and a slight buzz go together about as well as bourbon and orange juice. Harris says he worries for young drivers, even if they haven't been drinking, because their concept of defensive driving is limited.

"You think about your kid being out on the same road with that guy incapacitated going 112 mph just as drunk as could be. It's a scary thought, you know? It's frightening," Harris says. "We pull over a lot of kids for speeding and other violations and they don't realize the dangers that are associated with not only their actions but with everybody else's.

"You just never know. You just don't know who's in these cars out here."

Moms Against Drunk Drivers Needed • Charleston's MADD chapter is currently defunct

A long time ago there was a Mothers Against Drunk Driving community action site in Charleston. Not anymore. MADD is a volunteer-based organization and state executive director Jami Goldman says her volunteers get busy. Life happens and MADD becomes background noise sometimes. But if anyone has some extra time and wants to try to make a difference, Goldman says she'd be more than happy to drive from Columbia and provide all the necessary information regarding working with victims, spreading awareness, promoting legislation, and what-have-you. If interested, call Goldman at (803) 748-7333.

S.C. Impaired Driving Prevention Council proposal:

Current state law has a four-tiered approach to DUI, which opponents argue is too lenient and confusing. The SCIDPC has proposed a more stringent and much clearer 16-tiered response to DUI offenses. Penalties would also apply to drug use that impairs driving. This proposal will be sent to lawmakers in January.

Current State Law: 0.08


1st offense, misdemeanor, $400 or 48 hours-30 days imprisonment (or 48 hours of community service)

2nd offense, misdemeanor, $2,100-$5,100, 5 days-1 year imprisonment (or 30 days of community service)

3rd offense, misdemeanor, $3,800-$6,300, 60 days-3 years imprisonment

4th offense, felony, $0, 1 year - 5 years imprisonment

SCIDPC's Proposal: 0.02 - 0.079 (Driving While Impaired)


1st offense, misdemeanor, $400, 48 hrs.-30 days

2nd offense, misdemeanor, $2,100-$5,100, 5 days-1 year

3rd offense, misdemeanor, $3,800-$6,300, 60 days-3 years

4th offense, felony, $0, 1 year-5 years

0.08 - 0.099 (Driving With An Unlawful Alcohol Concentration)


1st offense, misdemeanor, $400, 48 hrs.-30 days

2nd offense, misdemeanor, $2,100-$5,100, 5 days - 1 year

3rd offense, misdemeanor, $3,800-$6,300, 60 days - 3 years

4th offense, felony, $0, 1 year-5 years

0.10 - 0.159 (Driving With An Unlawful and High Alcohol Concentration)


1st offense, misdemeanor, $500, 72 hrs.-30 days

2nd offense, misdemeanor, $2,500-$5,500, 30 days-2 years

3rd offense, misdemeanor, $5,000-$7,500, 90 days-4 years

4th offense, felony, $0, 2 years-6 years

0.16+ (Driving With An Unlawful and Gross Alcohol Concentration)


1st offense, misdemeanor, $1,000, 30-90 days

2nd offense, misdemeanor, $3,500-$6,500, 90 days-3 years

3rd offense, misdemeanor, $7,500-$10,000, 6 mos.-5 years

4th offense, felony, $0, 3 years-7 years

**All proposed levels would require evaluation/treatment and license suspension/revocation

When Drunken Fools Drive

Last year South Carolina tied with Tennessee for 12th highest alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities, so try to mind the Jack and Coke this year, especially during the festive New Year season. Within South Carolina, Charleston County was the sixth highest county for alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities. Like the adult-beverage advertisements say, drink responsibly, and use the stocking money to call a cab.

click to enlarge news1.2.jpg

Comments (3)

Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-3 of 3

Add a comment

Classified Listings

Powered by Foundation   © Copyright 2016, Charleston City Paper   RSS