DUIs disappear when drivers take plea deal

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - Inside a plain-looking government building tucked away among the trees along 21st Avenue North are magistrates' courtrooms where lives are changed forever. You can get what amounts to a scarlet letter on your record, a DUI conviction which will stay with you for life.

But a WMBF News investigation shows that when someone arrested for DUI pleads guilty to a lesser charge, like Surfside Mayor Allen Deaton, there is no scarlet letter. His DUI arrest and thousands of others are deleted from the court's computers. It's the law.

In videotape WMBF News obtained of Mayor Deaton's field sobriety test during a traffic stop in January 2010, you can see him going through the exercises, such as lifting one foot, and later he's taken away in handcuffs.

The mayor denied he was drunk and prosecutors say they couldn't prove he was.

Deaton pleaded guilty to going 60 in a 45mph zone. So now when you enter his name into the court's computer system it's as if that DUI arrest never happened. (Note: Click on "Summary Court" and hit "agree" once the webpage comes up. To see the Surfside mayor's cases, you must use his legal name Kemp Allen Deaton or K. Allen Deaton.)

It's like that for anyone in South Carolina who's accused of DUI but pleads guilty to something else.

"It seems a little crazy to me," said Tom Leath, the city manager of Myrtle Beach. He hires city attorneys to prosecute first-time offenders arrested for DUI within city limits. "But they passed a law. The law's in place. Charges are expunged. We don't know about 'em. They never happened as far as we're concerned."

With so many legal jurisdictions on the Grand Strand, it makes one wonder if a DUI suspect who pleads guilty to a lesser charge could be arrested two or three more times without the prosecutor realizing it's something they've been accused of before.

"Well, that's true and certainly (the) more information you have you can make a better judgment," said Solicitor Greg Hembree. But a few seconds later he added, "I'm just not sure it's really fair to continue to make them at least suffer in some way for a crime that they weren't convicted of."

We wanted to see how the process works.

Hembree granted WMBF News exclusive access behind the public courtrooms where DUI cases are heard and into the hallways and cramped offices where the deals are made.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers gather here to look at the videotape of the defendant's arrest and the strength of the other evidence in the case, such as the breathalyzer test. Among the prosecutors whose job it is to wade through the 600 DUI cases that have piled-up is Ricky Todd.

"We're not just giving away the farm, definitely," said Todd. "We're looking to see if someone is worthy of being prosecuted, if it is a good case and it's the right thing to do."

Most of his cases never make it to trial.

Many times, he says, people plead guilty to DUI not wanting to face a jury and realizing the judge will probably just give them a fine that's under $1,000 if they admit they were driving drunk.

But there are those other cases, the ones that are hard to prove because, prosecutors say, at 21 pages long, South Carolina's DUI law is complicated and often favors the defendant.

WMBF News went through the law and discovered authorities not only have to tell a DUI suspect his rights before giving him a breathalyzer test they also have to provide him with a written copy.

The officer is required to videotape the traffic stop and the recording has to be no "later than the activation of the officer's blue lights."

Then at the breath testing facility, the law requires the officer to videotape the "person's conduct" for 20 minutes before giving them the breathalyzer.

"So all he's gotta do is make that one mistake," Hembree said. "Ah, didn't turn the camera on when he was supposed to! That case is thrown-out."

Inside the courtroom, WMBF News witnessed what a glitch in a case can do.

Assistant Solicitor Todd told the judge a breathalyzer machine initially gave a false reading after troopers arrested 45-year-old Elizabeth C. Booth of Myrtle Beach for DUI last October.

Todd told the judge he didn't think the case could proceed as a DUI. Booth's attorney then entered a guilty plea for reckless driving.

The judge ordered Booth, who was not present inside the courtroom, to pay a $445 fine.

While no one wants to see someone convicted of DUI when there's a problem with the machine, Solicitor Hembree argues legislators in Columbia need to re-write South Carolina's DUI law. (Note: Scroll down to Section 56-5-2910)

"I think we have one of the weakest DUI statutes in the country," he said. "And it's weak because it's become too complicated."

Later Hembree told us, "You have to do Miranda in DUI cases that you wouldn't have to do in a murder case."

In fact, one prosecutor recently told us trying a murder case can be easier.

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