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DUI law tough, but not tough enough

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By The Staff

South Carolina’s drunk driving law will have more bite in February 2009. That’s when tougher penalties go into effect and some loopholes in the existing law are set to go out of effect. You’d be pressed to find anyone in law enforcement or in the prosecution of drunk drivers who’d argue the driving under the influence law in South Carolina didn’t need revising.

South Carolina ranks near the top nationally in alcohol-related deaths. Of 1,037 people killed in crashes in South Carolina in 2006, half died in alcohol-related wrecks, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The revised law will strike a requirement that law officers give suspected drunk drivers multiple Miranda warnings after traffic stops. A Miranda warning is when an officer advises a suspect he or she has the right to remain silent and to have an attorney before answering questions. Advocates for a change in the law said that was a loophole that made it easier for cases to be thrown of court.

Under the new law:

n Penalties will range from 48 hours in jail or a $400 fine for a driver with a blood-alcohol level of 0.08 or 0.09 percent on a first offense up to seven years prison time for a driver convicted of a fourth or later offense of driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.16 percent or more. The current maximum prison time for a repeat offender is five years.

n Juries first will have to find a defendant guilty of violating the law and then make a separate determination about the level of intoxication.

n Drivers who refuse to take a breath test would have their driver’s licenses suspended for six months – up from three months.

n Any driver convicted of driving under the influence – no matter what the level – will have to go through an approved alcohol-treatment program.

Some folks, like those with the state’s chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, say the law still has weaknesses. Juries can disregard breath test results and acquit defendants for other reasons. And drivers who refuse to take breath tests for the first time still can get route-restricted licenses that allow them to drive to and from work. But the new law will make it easier for prosecutors to prosecute suspected drunk driving cases.

Changes in South Carolina’s drunk driving laws were clearly needed. And given the South Carolina’s Legislature’s history, it wasn’t realistic to expect sweeping changes that would’ve made the state’s drunk driving laws among the toughest in the nation.

No, the Legislature here doesn’t do that. Laws and other things change gradually over the decades in the Palmetto State. You may remember the Legislature tweaked the state’s drunk driving law in the late 1990s – also to give it more bite. Perhaps, this means the drunk driving law in South Carolina will become even tougher in the next decade.

We hope so.

The Legislature needs to do so much more to help change the culture in this state so everyone understands that South Carolina doesn’t turn a blind eye toward drunk driving – that this isn’t a state where anyone can get away with a slap on the wrist for a drunken driving charge, period.

That would help people get the message that if they’re going to tie one on, they either need to have a designated driver, or they just need to do it at home, where they can sleep it off and not endanger themselves or anyone else on the highways.