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Sheriff wants to reform DUI laws

Posted: September 15, 2015 5:24 p.m.
Updated: September 16, 2015 1:00 a.m.
KCDC website photo/

Lowell Stewart, originally charged with felony DUI resulting in death in connection with the collision which killed Pine Grove firefighter DeWitt Peake, will only serve five years in prison minus time served due to what Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews says is a technicality involving a deputy's video of the arrest. Stewart could have faced up to 25 years in prison.

Kershaw County Sheriff Jim Matthews says too many guilty driving under the influence (DUI) offenders go unpunished or “underpunished.” The Kershaw County Sheriff’s Office (KCOS) regularly receives awards for enforcing South Carolina’s DUI laws, but Matthews said the way those laws are written often end up with less than optimal outcomes in his mind.

For example, Matthews said, a recent case which resulted in the death of a county man resulted in a relatively mild punishment because of a technicality involving the arresting deputy’s video recording of a roadside sobriety test.

In January 2013, DeWitt Peake, a volunteer member of the Pine Grove Fire Department, died when then 27-year-old Lowell Nathan Stewart’s 2006 Toyota collided with Peake’s motorcycle on Pine Grove Road. The KCSO initially charged Stewart with a charge of felony DUI resulting in death. On Sept. 11, Stewart plead guilty to a lesser charge of reckless homicide and DUI with a blood alcohol level between .1 and .16.

Online court records show a judge sentenced Stewart to five years in prison minus any time already served for the reckless homicide charge. Records show the judge sentenced him to 30 days time served for the DUI charge. If the felony DUI resulting in death charge had stuck, Stewart could have faced up to 25 years in prison. With the time he has already served, Stewart would leave prison no later than two years and three months from now.

“We have very, very poor DUI laws in this state,” Matthew said. “When the officer gave the guy the sobriety test on the side of the road, his feet went off camera, from his dashcam, which can be a fatal flaw in the case. That’s one of the things they’re trying to do to change the DUI laws. These laws are written by defense attorney lawmakers and they do it for their own interests and not for the best interests of the public. It is disgraceful. It’s shameful. If I was in the family of a victim, I’d be up at the statehouse carrying a sign about our DUI laws that are written by defense attorneys who draft laws so they can successfully defend drunk drivers.”

Matthews said DUI cases should be decided on the preponderance of the evidence just like other crimes and if there is compelling evidence a person was driving intoxicated, a technical glitch with a video should not ruin the entire case.

“It shouldn’t be that everything has to be 100 percent. If a guy is drunk and blows a .20 and is disheveled and smells like alcohol, he was seen driving the car but his foot goes out of frame on the dashcam and they dismiss the case based on that because that’s the way the law is written, something is bad wrong with that,” Matthews said. “Why don’t we look at the state with lowest per capita DUI fatality rate and copy their law, but no, we have to do it our way, so we stay in the top five in the whole United States for the DUI fatality rate. It baffles me.” 

Matthews said intoxicated drivers kill more people than murderers, yet a murder conviction is easier to get.

“The criminal defense lobby is so strong. It makes sense to have an attorney help draft laws, but if you are defending DUI cases, you shouldn’t be drafting the laws. It’s a clear conflict of interest,” Matthews said. “This had been going on for years. We have people getting killed all the time and the people who are doing it are getting off. It’s easier to prosecute a murder than it is a DUI case, because of the way the laws are written.”

Matthews said he has spoken with 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson about DUI prosecution, but the solicitor’s office is bound by the same laws as law enforcement agencies.

“He’s aware of the problem, but we’re pretty much powerless to do anything about it. The law minimizes all the preponderance of evidence and blows out of proportion anything that’s out of our control,” Matthews said. “The deck is stacked against the public and against law enforcement.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Stewart was still being held at the Kershaw County Detention Center awaiting transfer to S.C. Department of Corrections custody.

(Editor Martin L. Cahn contributed to this story.)

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