Beaufort County slogs through DUI backlog, but new cases keep pouring in

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Beaufort County slogs through DUI backlog, but new cases keep pouring in

By CASSIE FOSS
cfoss@islandpacket.com
Published Saturday, November 12, 2011   |  675 Words  |  

Beaufort County courts made headway in reducing a backlog of almost 500 drunken-driving cases after an order last spring from the state's top judge, according to figures from the S.C. Judicial Department.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal ordered the state's local courts to clear drunk-driving cases on March 21, and four months later 337 out of 474 cases in Beaufort County magistrate and municipal courts were disposed of, according to the figures.

Meanwhile, 167 new cases flowed into the court system over the four-month period Toal's order was in effect. Comparatively, old cases were disposed of at twice the rate that new cases came in. Most of the new cases aren't sitting idle -- they have been scheduled for trial or for preliminary action, Magistrate Court administrator Stephanie Garst said.

The county made "a lot of progress" in accomplishing its goals before Toal's order expired July 21, and clearing cases remains a priority, Garst said.

"There's a steady stream of cases," she said. " ... It's never going to be zero, but we'll work toward it."

In summarizing the results of her order, Toal said she was pleased with the reductions but worried that courts wouldn't be able prevent backlogs given the "huge volume of charges" that are steadily filed.

Typically, the biggest problem for county Magistrate Court is coordinating the schedules of defense attorneys, defendants and law enforcement officers, Garst said. Problems can also occur when law enforcement officers, who are not trained as lawyers, have to serve as prosecutors for the cases. They often have to face trained defense lawyers.

The 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office, which includes Beaufort, Jasper, Colleton, Hampton and Allendale counties, got help in clearing the jam from a $75,000 grant. It was used to shift an attorney already on staff to help law enforcement officers prosecute DUI cases throughout the five-county judicial circuit.

Of the 99 cases the attorney reviewed in Beaufort County, 22 went to trial. Of those, 14 resulted in guilty pleas or verdicts, and eight were judicially dismissed, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone said. The remaining 77 cases are pending.

"I saw the attorney spend every minute of every day gathering discovery for these cases, but I'd like to see us take an overall more active role," Stone said. "I'd like to see more lawyers put on the project."

Stone met last week with state officials to propose adding two more lawyers to help with DUI cases. Officials were receptive, but the grant allows for only one attorney per circuit, he said.

Still, having a single attorney helping with cases should continue to help reduce the backlog, Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said.

"It's not healthy to have cases sit on the docket for months," Tanner said. "The longer the case sits, the harder it is to get witnesses, law enforcement officers and attorneys together."

Toal said data collected during the four-month period would be used to make recommendations to the courts and possibly to the S.C. General Assembly. She said her office would continue to monitor DUI dockets statewide.

Tanner said his office will request a review of how the magistrate and municipal court cases were cleared.

"I want for us to understand what we did with the cases so we know what we need to do in the future and won't fall back into the same pattern," he said. "That's how we'll be successful in the future."

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter/LcBlotter.com.

Follow reporter Cassie Foss at twitter/LcBlotter.com.

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County to start digging out from backlog of drunken-driving cases, April 1, 2011


Read more about S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal's directive: