DUI defense

Yesterday I saw this article written by Adam Beam at The State, and could not let it pass without comment:

Whoever said “you can’t have it both ways” clearly has not looked at South Carolina’s proposed budget.

The $22.7 billion spending plan — which House lawmakers are scheduled to debate next week — includes $1.6 million to prosecute drunken-driving cases. It also includes $1.2 million to defend those accused in the DUI cases.

On its face, that doesn’t make sense. If the state is spending a million to keep drunk drivers off the road, why would it also spend a million to keep drunk drivers on the road? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?

No, said state Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, chairman of the House law enforcement budget subcommittee. Pitts, a former police officer, said 80 percent of S.C. defendants accused of DUI can’t afford an attorney. That means the state pays for their attorneys.

“When the court appoints an indigent defense attorney and there is none there, because there is no funding, then the system stops,” Pitts said. “You create a bottleneck.”

So the only way to prosecute a defendant accused of drunken driving is to defend him or her. Either way, the lawyers win.

First of all, not every person who is charged with DUI is guilty.  Police make mistakes, some innocent mistakes, some not so much.  The Bill of Rights applies to every citizen, and it’s protections apply to every person accused of a crime, even in a DUI case.  Defense lawyers don’t “keep drunk drivers on the road -” most see their job as making sure that law enforcement is doing their jobs and that the state proves their case.  You’ll appreciate that when you are accused of a crime that you did not commit and threatened with prosecution.

In the magistrate and municipal courts, there are trained attorneys who prosecute DUI cases.  In most municipal courts, there are attorneys who prosecute all offenses, and in most magistrate courts, there are attorneys who are hired solely to prosecute DUI’s and CDV’s.  In most counties, there are no public defenders in the magistrate or the municipal court.  This means that the 80% of defendants who cannot afford an attorney (according to Mike Pitts, cited in the article), are representing themselves against a trained prosecutor.  Which means that, whether they are guilty or not, they are pleading guilty or getting found guilty at trial.  Almost all plead guilty because they do not have a choice.

When we have lawyers prosecuting citizens in magistrate or municipal court, the citizens are entitled to an equal defense – if they are indigent and cannot retain an attorney the government is obligated to provide that defense.  If we are going to create positions for special DUI or CDV prosecutors, we need to create the corresponding positions for public defenders or appointed counsel for those who cannot afford representation.

In Horry County, I have never seen a magistrate appoint an attorney for a DUI defendant, although I am sure it has happened.  When an attorney is appointed to represent an indigent client, they are not making money.  They are not getting paid what a case is worth, or anything remotely resembling a fair fee.  When my office is appointed to represent an indigent client, we lose money – the fees that are approved for indigent defense in our state court are among the lowest in the nation, and do not cover operating expenses.  “Either way, the lawyers win” doesn’t make sense.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *