In 1998, South Carolina lawmakers mandated that police use dashboard mounted cameras to document the arrest of anyone arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). The state supreme court on Monday ruled that the town of Mount Pleasant was not in compliance with this statute, which states a suspect “must have his conduct at the incident site and the breath test site video recorded.”
DUI arrests have been a major moneymaker for the town of 67,000. Between 1998 and 2008, Mount Pleasant made 2796 DUI arrests, ranking first among municipalities in the state. It should have had the top priority in receiving cameras from the state Department of Public Safety, but it only asked for and received seven. By comparison, the town of Moncks Corner had nearly twice as many cameras for just 198 arrests. Instead of buying cameras to meet legal requirements, town officials spent $65,145 for a “Town of Mount Pleasant” sign placed at a freeway exit. They also paid $100,000 to a marketing firm to come up with a town slogan and $6 million to buy a parcel of property known as the “O.K. Tire Store.”
Mount Pleasant officials believed they could get away with this because the dashcam law was written to take effect gradually as the video equipment was distributed throughout the state. In 2007, the high court referred to this provision as providing “a reasonable grace period.” In the present case, the justices saw the town as attempting to evade its legal responsibility with an overly clever reading of the letter of the law.
“We find the town’s protracted failure to equip its patrol vehicles with video cameras, despite its ‘priority’ ranking, defeats the intent of the legislature and violates the statutorily-created obligation to videotape DUI arrests,” Justice Donald W. Beatty wrote for the court. “Accordingly, we do not believe that the Town should be able to continually evade its duty by relying on subsection (G) of section 56-5-2953.”
The court found that although the city did not necessarily have to spend its own funds for the cameras, it was responsible for requesting them from the state Department of Public Safety.
“We find the town’s explanation is disingenuous,” Beatty wrote. “Admittedly, the legislature was silent with respect to a time requirement for when vehicles must be equipped with video cameras. However, applying the rules of statutory construction, we find the town’s interpretation would defeat the legislative intent of section 56-5-2953 and the overall DUI reform enacted in 1998.”
The ruling affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of DUI charges against Treva Roberts for a November 1, 2007 incident.