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South Carolina Is the Sixth-Worst State For Highway Fatalities: Would an Increase Penalties for Refusing Breath-Alcohol Tests Improve Highway Safety?

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WCNC.com reports that in a recent study from TRIP our home state of South Carolina ranks as the sixth-worst state in the nation when it comes to highway fatalities. But why are our highways so dangerous? What is the leading case of fatal car accidents in our state? When asked this question state troopers blamed drunk driving, and some sobering statistics agree. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Sobering Facts Sheet, 3,870 people were killed in car accidents involving a drunk driver in South Carolina between 2003 and 2012. The facts sheet indicates that this figure is well above the national average.


But what can be done to combat drunk driving on our roads? Strategies to reduce or prevent drunk driving typically center around educating the public, holding sobriety checkpoints, and increasing the penalty for driving under the influence (DUI). One option available to South Carolina is to deter drunk driving by imposing harsher penalties for suspected drunk drivers who refuse to submit to a breath-alcohol test when a peace officer requests them to. The United States Supreme Court recently heard a case involving this very topic and upheld several state laws that impose criminal penalties on drivers who refuse to take a breath-alcohol test during DUI stops.


The U.S. Supreme Court Approves of Warrantless Breath Tests During DUI Stops


According to wistv.com, the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard three cases in which drivers argued that being required to submit to breath- or blood-alcohol tests without a warrant violates the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court ruled that police officers must obtain a search warrant before they can require drivers to take a blood-alcohol test, but that breath-alcohol tests can be required without a warrant because they are less intrusive and, therefore, do not violate the Fourth Amendment.


The cases that the Supreme Court heard all involved state laws that criminalized the act of refusing blood and breath alcohol concentration tests during DUI stops. Wistv.com reports that all 50 states currently have laws that allow the state to revoke a driver’s license for refusing to submit to drunk driving tests, however, the Supreme Court’s ruling affects 11 state laws that take things a step farther by imposing criminal penalties on drivers who refuse such tests. In other words, the Supreme Court has approved of police officers requiring warrantless breath tests during drunk driving stops and upholds state laws that impose criminal penalties for those who refuse. This recent ruling leaves the door open for states like South Carolina who do not currently criminalize such refusals to add increased penalties to their implied consent laws.


What Is an ‘Implied Consent’ Law?


When you first applied for your driver’s license, chances are that you were so excited to hit the road that you may not have really thought through the ramifications of what you were agreeing to when you signed on the dotted line. Nonetheless, each state has an ‘implied consent law’ that kicks in when a driver applies for their license. Under an implied consent law, drivers consent to undergoing sobriety tests administered by police officers in the field for the purpose of determining whether or not the driver is impaired by drugs or alcohol. Because licensed drivers have already given their implied consent for field sobriety tests, refusing to submit is illegal if the officer who stopped you reasonably suspects that you are driving under the influence. While the penalty for refusing such a sobriety test varies from state to state, every state allows for the driver’s license to be revoked for a specified period of time as punishment.


South Carolina’s implied consent law, found in S.C. Code § 56-5-2950, notes that a driver who improperly refused a sobriety test for the first time will have his or her driver’s license suspended for six months, nine months for a second offense, and one year for a third offense. It should be noted that South Carolina does not impose criminal penalties for refusing a sobriety test; rather, the punishment is simply to suspend your driver’s license. For comparison, check out the penalties that some other states can impose on drivers who improperly refuse to take roadside sobriety tests for the first time in their state:


  • Alaska: Up to three days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500.
  • Kentucky: License suspended for 30 days, and if the driver is convicted of driving under the influence then the amount of jail time that they are sentenced to doubles.
  • Rhode Island: License suspended for six months, up to 60 hours of community service required, and a fine of up to $500.
  • Oregon: License suspended for one year, and a fine of up to $1,000.
  • Idaho: License suspended for one year, and a fine of up to $250.


Although refusing a blood- or breath-alcohol test will by no means prevent a driver from being arrested and convicted of drunk driving, criminalizing the act of refusing a sobriety test may encourage people to submit more readily. This would conceivably make it easier for the authorities to successfully prosecute drunk drivers, and may in turn help deter drunk driving in general. Given the threat to public safety that drunk driving poses in South Carolina, combined with the Supreme Court’s recent endorsement of state laws that impose increased penalties on those who violate their state’s implied consent laws, perhaps increased penalties for refusing breath-alcohol tests would be a prudent step for South Carolina to take.


What Can We Do To Help?


If you or a loved one has been involved in a car accident where the at-fault driver is suspected of driving in violation of South Carolina’s DUI laws, contact the Elrod Pope Law Firm’s experienced car accident attorneys in Rock Hill to discuss your legal options. In these sorts of cases it is important to act quickly so that evidence, such as blood-alcohol test results, can be preserved so contact us today for a free consultation.

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