Family fights for law in memory of daughter

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Despite very little sleep between ringing in the New Year and a late-morning decision to head for home, Billy Patrick Hutto Jr. was still drunk when he got behind the wheel on Jan. 1, 2012. Not just a little drunk, either, but pickled, smashed, three-sheets-to-the-wind drunk.

Around the same time, inside a Chrysler Town & Country minivan, David Longstreet, his wife Karen and their four children were dressed in their Sunday best and on their way to church in Lexington, SC.

A short time later, Hutto, who had pleaded guilty to driving under the influence in 2009, slammed into the side of the Longstreets’ minivan. David Longstreet was badly injured and his daughter, 6-year-old Emma, sustained massive injuries that would take her life just hours later.

Hutto’s blood-alcohol count was more than .20, despite having ended his drinking binge several hours earlier.

David and Karen would later tell a reporter that their daughter, their only girl and youngest child, was a genuine light in their family.

“Both a princess and a tomboy, Emma loved girly things – her Barbies, her Littlest Pet Shop toys – but was just as happy being with her dad on the riding mower, shooting the last fireworks on New Year’s eve, and riding herd over her doting older brothers,” Karen told a local publication shortly after the tragedy.

Hutto would eventually be sentenced to nine years in prison, but for David, Karen and their family the pain continues.

One way the family has sought to cope with Emma’s loss is to try to effect positive change amid the heartbreak.

They’ve pushed for more than a year for the passage of Emma’s Law, which would require all repeat and first-time offenders with a blood-alcohol concentration of .12 or higher to use an ignition interlock device on their vehicle.

Yet even this common sense measure, a means by which this family can try to gain a small bit of peace from a heartbreaking loss, is meeting resistance from South Carolina lawmakers.

The bill was introduced in December 2012 and was passed by the SC Senate in March 2013. It moved to the SC House that same month, where it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee. It hasn’t budged since then, however.

A couple of things to keep in mind: The South Carolina House of Representatives has a whole lot of attorneys. Perhaps not surprisingly, the House Judiciary Committee is especially heavy with lawyers: 19 of the committee’s 25 members are attorneys.

Not only does the SC House have a lot of attorneys, it has defense attorneys o’ plenty. And House members receive sizeable campaign contributions from firms that defend individuals who often stand accused of crimes such as driving under the influence.

That’s not illegal or necessarily unethical, just something to remember when common sense legislation such as Emma’s Law gets waylaid by South Carolina’s labyrinthine legislature.

David Longstreet believes that the committee is holding the bill up because the defense attorney lobby is worried that requiring DUI offenders to install ignition interlocks on their vehicles will cut down on subsequent DUI cases – as it’s designed to do – which would take money out of their pockets.

Evidence of defense attorneys’ handiwork can perhaps be seen in the fact that opponents of Emma’s Law want the blood-alcohol concentration threshold raised from .12 to .15.

Given that the .15 figure is nearly double the .08 level required to be convicted of driving under the influence in South Carolina, the move would appear to be nothing more than a ham-fisted effort by defense attorneys to circle the wagons and protect their cash cow, a fact that hasn’t escaped Longstreet.

“The use of ignition interlocks will decrease the need and relevance of defense attorneys … ” according to Longstreet.

How lucrative is the DUI business? Very. It’s been estimated that it costs between $5,000 and $10,000 on average to fight a charge of driving under the influence in South Carolina.

In 2011, for example, there were 15,674 DUI arrests in South Carolina. If it costs, on average, $7,500 to mount a defense against a driving under the influence charge that works out to nearly $118 million annually. That’s a lot of money.

It seems difficult to understand the issue with Emma’s Law.

Ignition interlocks will reduce the number of offenders as intoxicated drivers won’t be able to get their vehicles started.

For the uninitiated, ignition interlock devices are designed to stop people who have been drinking alcohol from starting their cars. It requires them to blow into the mechanism; if there is alcohol on the driver’s breath, the device will not allow the ignition system to operate.

The device is installed on a motor vehicle’s dashboard. Before the vehicle can be started, a driver must first exhale into the mechanism. If the driver’s breath-alcohol concentration is greater than the programmed blood-alcohol concentration, the device prevents the motor from being started.

In addition, at random times after the motor has been started, the ignition interlock will require another breath sample. This prevents someone other than the driver who may not be intoxicated from breathing into the device.

If a breath sample isn’t provided, or the sample exceeds the ignition interlock’s preset blood-alcohol level, the device will log the event, warn the driver and then activate an alarm, which can include flashing lights or a honking horn until the ignition is turned off, or a clean breath sample has been provided.

The interlock mechanism doesn’t simply shut off the engine when alcohol is detected because that could create a further danger on the roadway were the car to suddenly stall out on a busy street or highway.

Besides providing a means to check up on convicted drunk drivers once they get behind the wheel, it also poses additional penalties in that they’re required to foot the costs associated with ignition interlock devices.

On average, interlocks cost about $70 to $150 to install and about $60 to $80 per month for monitoring and calibration.

In most states, interlock companies provide interlock devices for offenders who can’t afford the devices or an indigent fund is set up by the state to cover costs for these offenders.

Laws regarding the mandated use of ignition interlocks vary by state.

In South Carolina, for example, ignition interlocks are currently mandated only following a second conviction for driving under the influence. Failure to do so results in an additional three-year suspension of the convicted individual’s driver’s license, according to the SC Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services.

Ignition interlock devices have a proven track record as an effective deterrent, according to LaDoris Cordell, a retired California state court judge.

“The American Journal of Preventive Medicine notes that five out of six studies found that interlocks reduced the rate of recidivism for (DUI) charges. Participants in the interlock programs were 15 percent to 69 percent less likely than other offenders to be rearrested for drunken driving,” Cordell wrote in Slate magazine in 2009.

It would appear we have a solution to a very real and very deadly problem.

In South Carolina alone, some 315 people were killed in crashes involving drunk drivers in 2011.

So what’s the problem? Oh, that’s right: Fewer drunks behind the wheel will mean fewer DUIs issued, and that will mean less business for defense attorneys.

Suddenly, it’s becomes a little easier to imagine why an unscrupulous trial lawyer or two more focused on their own bank accounts rather than the safety of their fellow South Carolinians would want to scuttle the bill.

David and Karen Longstreet, who have already endured more emotional pain over the past 26 months than most of us could ever imagine, are frustrated by the delay and are worried time may run out before the end of the legislative session.

If Emma’s Law doesn’t pass the Senate before the end of the 2014 session, it will have to be reintroduced and the process begun anew next year.

Despite the DUI carnage, which continues year in and year out, it appears some within the trial attorney network don’t want anything to endanger their golden goose, no matter the cost in lives and property.

Of course, those holding up Emma’s Law haven’t had to watch their precious child die an utterly needless death at the hands of a repeat DUI offender, an individual who, had such legislation been in place, wouldn’t even have been able to get his car started on that fateful New Year’s Day morning.

How many more Emma Longstreets are we going to have to bury before legislators get the message that it’s not okay to put special interests before the well-being of the people they were elected to represent?

(Top: Photos of Emma Longstreet.)

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