2008-02-06 / State News

Senators to consider toughening DUI law

By SEANNA ADCOX Associated Press Writer

COLUMBIA - Senators said Wednesday that legislation toughening the state's weak drunken driving laws should focus on repeat offenders instead of punishing someone who made a dumb decision once and can hopefully learn from the mistake.

''The goal, really, is we want to crack down on repeat offenders,'' said Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, who led a Senate panel studying the legislation.

Senators have said they are appalled that repeat drunken driving offenders can continue to have a license. In South Carolina, 40 percent of repeat DUI offenders plead guilty to lesser offenses, according to a video made by Gov. Mark Sanford's office.

About 40 percent of traffic deaths on South Carolina's roads are due to drunken drivers, the second-worst rate in the nation, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

Critics say South Carolina's DUI law has too many loopholes that allow drunken drivers to avoid punishment.

The latest proposal being considered by senators does not include enhanced penalties for first-time offenders. Hutto said requiring anyone convicted of DUI to complete alcohol or drug abuse treatment programs will help first offenders not repeat their mistake.

''I'm willing to give someone a second chance, unless you hurt someone. If you mess up a second time, we ought to come after you because it's a matter of time before you hurt someone,'' said Sen. Shane Massey, REdgefield, to applause during a subcommittee meeting.

The governor urged senators to undo the panel's changes. A Sanford spokesman said it makes no sense to give first-time offenders a break.

''First-time offenders are no less deadly on the road than second-, third- or fourth- offenders,'' said spokesman Joel Sawyer. ''We need to show everybody we're more serious. If we have strong penalties for first offenders, they're far less likely to become repeat offenders.''

The panel sent an amended bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, which began lengthy debate but delayed a vote until next week.

The bill senators are considering was passed last year by the House. It would create a tiered penalty system depending on a driver's blood alcohol level, increase the time a driver's license is suspended for refusing to take a breath test and delete the requirement that suspects be read their rights multiple times during an arrest,

The current suspension for drivers under 21 would increase from six to nine months under the latest version senators are considering - down from one year under the House version - while the license of older drivers who refuse to take the test would be suspended between three months and a year, depending on any previous DUI convictions.

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