Dramatically improved conviction rates speaks to the success of a 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office pilot program to hold Beaufort County drunken drivers accountable.
So has one of the state’s leading advocates in the fight to end impaired driving.
“On behalf of MADD South Carolina, let me congratulate you for the exciting results of your pilot program to shift DUI prosecution from law enforcement officers to attorneys within your agency,” wrote Steve Burritt, the organization’s regional executive editor. “… Thank you to you and your team for being willing to innovate and push for stronger prosecution of DUIs.”
The program was launched in December 2019 and ran through June 2022. After reviewing the Solicitor’s Office summary performance report, Burritt noted “the clear benefits of this approach in terms of improving conviction rates.”
The full report and Burritt’s complete response are included below.
As far back as 2018, former Beaufort County Councilman Rick Caporale was alarmed by a high rate of dismissals and low rate of convictions of DUI charges in Magistrate Court. He put his finger on the problem in an email to Solicitor Duffie Stone: “(A) failure to prosecute these cases properly – that is, we’re not using experienced prosecutors.”
At that time, more than 67% of all drunken driving cases ended in dismissals, while less than 33% ended in either guilty pleas or bench-trial verdicts.
The Solicitor’s Office had much better success in General Sessions Court prosecuting felony-level DUIs – such as those involving death or great bodily injury. So Caproale asked Solicitor Stone to design a program that would put his professional prosecutors in charge of magistrate-level offenses, too.
During the pilot program, the Solicitor’s Office prosecuted misdemeanor DUI charges brought by law enforcement patrolling Beaufort County’s unincorporated areas. Its attorneys reversed the numbers that once alarmed Caproale. Through June 2022, when the program ended, the conviction rate soared to 68.3%, and dismissals were slashed to 31.7%.
Assistant Solicitor Daniel Gourley oversaw the pilot program for most of its existence. He is now employed by the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office. With the pilot program’s conclusion, he will oversee and prosecute Magistrate Court DUI prosecutions for that agency.
“DUI law is very complicated, and you need experienced prosecutors to make enforcement successful,” Solicitor Stone said. “Daniel and the other assistant solicitors did an outstanding job with the pilot program. I’m sure he will take all that he learned here and make the Sheriff’s Office prosecutions successful, too.”
MADD South Carolina Regional Executive Director Steve Burritt’s review of DUI pilot program summary:
On behalf of MADD South Carolina, let me congratulate you for the exciting results of your pilot program to shift DUI prosecution from law enforcement officers to attorneys within your agency. Your summary report points out the clear benefits of this approach in terms of improving conviction rates closer to what they should be. Of course, it is only when cases end as convictions that offenders experience the type of penalties, including treatment and possibly ignition interlock devices, that might actually deter future dangerous behaviors.
In our court monitoring report released in December 2020 titled Refusal to Change, we shared data from seven counties (Beaufort was not one of them) showing that conviction rates for officers prosecuting against defense attorneys was just 13%. Our recommendations included: “More parts of the state need to direct more resources toward DUI prosecution so that attorneys are prosecuting rather than officers.”
Let me add that another major benefit of this approach is that officers get to spend more time doing what they are actually trained to do — enforce laws and prevent crime and crashes — rather than spending more time preparing to prosecute cases or dealing with the preparation and communication needed to move a case toward a resolution.
Thank you to you and your team for being willing to innovate and push for stronger prosecution of DUIs. It will take more serious approaches such as this to improve on our state’s dismal rankings for DUI fatalities.