Enforcing South Carolina’s Drunk Driving Laws Requires Patience

June 16, 2010

Anderson County Sheriff’s Deputy Joel Frazier is a good listener.

Frazier, a 12-year law enforcement veteran, has worked for the South Carolina county sheriff’s office as a patrol deputy for six years.

Last Saturday night, Frazier was one of about two dozen deputies, Anderson City police patrol officers and South Carolina Highway Patrol troopers to participate in a series of DUI-checkpoints in Anderson County.

From 6 p.m. Saturday until just after 4 a.m. Sunday, Frazier, one of two Anderson County Sheriff’s deputies dedicated to drunken-driving enforcement, initiated traffic stops on vehicles, screened drivers at checkpoints and eventually made a drunken-driving arrest during the special operation aimed at curbing drunken driving during the first three-day weekend of the summer

Frazier and Deputy Brent Moore are attached to the Anderson County Sheriff’s CATCH Team. Their salaries, training and benefits are paid in part by a DUI grant from the South Carolina Office of Highway Safety, a division of the Department of Public Safety.

Both are experts in drunken driving law and, according to Frazier, “not being surprised at anything anyone does when they’re drunk.”

Saturday night, Frazier worked without Moore, who is on family leave.

Following the deputy as he made traffic stops, conducted field sobriety tests and put someone in jail for drunken driving was a crash-course in the reality that enforcing DUI law is, at times, a game of legal “cat and mouse” whose only happy ending is simply getting an unsafe driver off the road.

Frazier, a quiet man, is patient while on the job. He is not easily frustrated.

“It doesn’t pay to get frustrated if you’re working DUI enforcement in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s best to be a good listener, because you will get an earful from people sometimes.”

Since January, Frazier and Moore have made about 70 drunken driving arrests in Anderson County, about one every other day.

“You’d think that, with how high South Carolina ranks on the alcohol-related fatalities list, people would wake up to the dangers,” Frazier said while patrolling the northbound side of U.S. 76 near Sandy Springs. “You work one fatal accident caused by alcohol, it’s an eye-opening experience.”

Frazier, who was careful with his words, said it was obvious that his role is to protect public safety.

“What isn’t so simple is balancing fairness with my mandate to enforce the law while exercising my best judgment,” he said.

On Kings Road in Anderson around 1 a.m. Sunday, his point was clearly demonstrated.

Having passed a sport utility vehicle in the oncoming lane of Brown Road whose driver failed to dim the highbeams, Frazier had made a u-turn and followed the vehicle as it rolled through a stop sign while making a left turn onto Kings Road.

“Sometimes an impaired driver will have a hard time seeing on a darkened road like this so they hit the highbeams,” he said while he watched the vehicle weave along the winding road, often crossing the centerline and swinging wide around sharp curves. “They’ll hit the brights and then they’ll forget to flip them off.”

Details, Frazier said. Details, details, details.

“We are trained to see, smell, feel and anticipate what an impaired driver is going to do,” he said. “Forgetting to dim the brights or switch off the cabin light in the car, these are things impaired people tend to do.”

After following the vehicle for about a mile, observing and, more importantly, recording it on the cruiser’s dashboard camera, Frazier hit the blue lights and pulled the car over on Kings Road, about a quarter-mile from the intersection of Concord Road.

The driver, a white female in her early 50s, was not intoxicated.

She was weaving, she said, because she was having trouble seeing the road.

Her husband, who sat in the rear of the car to watch the infant child in the car seat next to him, was found holding an uncorked bottle of wine between his legs, a violation of state open-container laws.

“It’s got to be carried in a compartment,” Frazier said while writing the woman a ticket.

The husband took issue with the citation.

He complained that the deputy was wasting time and that the open container ticket was unfair.

He asked for a supervisor.

Frazier’s supervisor, Sheriff’s Sgt. Mike Binninger, arrived about 10 minutes later.

After another 10 minutes of explanation, the man asked for Binninger’s supervisor..

Eventually, the couple returned to the car, open-container ticket in hand.

“Just another day in the life of a DUI enforcement officer,” Frazier said with a smile and shrug.

“People get upset when we pull them over and that is understandable,” he said a few minutes later. “But, as the officer responsible for making the stop, we own the responsibility for it, either way. If I hadn’t pulled the vehicle over and it had been a drunk driver and they had killed themselves or someone else, then what? We have to consider the totality of the circumstances.”

Frazier’s first and only DUI arrest of the operation came at 1:45 Sunday morning, almost eight hours after he had begun.

While working a checkpoint on U.S. 76 in Anderson between the Six-and-Twenty Bridge and Interstate 85, deputies watched a 1992 Toyota four-door approach the checkpoint and make a quick left turn into the parking lot of the Hilton Garden Inn nearby.

The driver of the car, a 20-year-old woman from Central, was driving with two passengers.

Frazier gave her a field sobriety test, a process that takes about 10 minutes.

She failed.

He took her into custody and drove her to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division’s Mobile Blood Alcohol Testing unit, or BatMobile, that was parked nearby. After informing the woman of the process of having her blood alcohol tested and providing her with a copy of the rules and regulations and her rights, Frazier sat in a small compartment inside the BatMobile, waiting for a 20-minute period to elapse.

“We have to give the suspect 20 minutes so that any residual alcohol in their mouth will dissipate,” he said. “It is one of many technicalities we have to be careful about.”

Meanwhile, the suspect sat in the larger compartment, locked in and unable to communicate with anyone other than Frazier, who sat about two feet away on the other side of a shatterproof plastic window.

When the 20 minutes had elapsed, the girl blew into the BAT testing machine.

Her blood-alcohol-content came back several points above the legal limit of .08.

It was almost 3:30 a.m.

An hour later, the woman was on her way into the bowels of the Anderson County Detention Center after being processed on a charge of minor-in-possession of alcohol for the purpose of consumption.

Because the woman was 20, Frazier said, state law applies in one of two ways: Either the woman can be charged with possession of alcohol or with DUI.

The possession charge and positive BAC test combine in an administrative capacity, meaning the woman will lose her license for at least 90 days but will not face the legal liabilities of a DUI charge.

“Charging someone under 21 with DUI can go one way or the other,” he said. “Again, it is confusing. I doubt she realizes what a bullet she’s dodged.”

As he stood in the enclosed area where prisoners are brought into the detention center, organizing his notes and ticket books, Frazier said, “We started this DUI arrest at 1:45 and here it is, almost 4:30. That’s just one DUI and I haven’t even done the paperwork on it. It’s part of the job but I don’t think the average person realizes how complex the laws are and how many resources are sucked into something as simple as them choosing to have a few too many drinks and drive.”

He said, “It could be simpler, but it isn’t. I’d just like people to know that, although they may get home safe after driving drunk, there’s that one time they may not and they’ll end up with us, going to jail.”

And if someone gets picked up but beats the drunken driving charge on a technicality?

“That’s certainly a possibility and it’s one we accept,” he said. “But there’s always that one time when technicalities don’t apply. A drunken driving fatality that’s one thing a lawyer can’t find a remedy for and it isn’t something we are prepared to live with. They may beat us in court later but at least we’ve got them off the road for the night. That’s its own victory when you think about it.”

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