Emma's Law passes subcommittee, heads to Judiciary Committee - wistv.com - Columbia, South Carolina

Emma's Law passes subcommittee, heads to Judiciary Committee

The House subcommittee unanimously passed Emma's Law with one amendment. The House subcommittee unanimously passed Emma's Law with one amendment.

Emma's Law, the law that would require ignition interlock devices in the vehicles of repeat offenders and first time offenders with certain blood-alcohol content levels, passed a House subcommittee Thursday with amendments watering down the law.

House Criminal Laws Subcommittee members passed the bill unanimously, but voted 3-2 to update the BAC level for first time offenders from .12 to .15 on an amendment from committee member Rep. Chris Murphy (R-District 98).

The committee also cleaned up what they called some technical language when it came to issues with child endangerment and if the driver has a violation of their interlock device it requires a hearing before penalties may be increased.

State Sen. Joel Lourie (D-District 22), one of the bill's sponsors in the Senate, says he's pleased with the bill's passage, but questioned the amendment changes.

"They've weakened it some and I have concerns about that. Point one-five is almost twice the legal limit. We went with .12 since that's 50 percent above the legal limit. That means if you leave a bar and you blew a .12, you're 50 percent above the limit, you're drunk. No question about it," said Lourie. "You've got no business being behind the wheel of a car."

Despite that, Lourie says he's optimistic about strengthening the bill and seeing its passage to Gov. Nikki Haley's desk before the end of the legislative session.

More changes are coming to the law once it hits the House floor, including an amendment from committee member Rep. Todd Rutherford (D-District 47).

"I've got another amendment that I want to look at putting everybody on interlock devices as soon as they're charged with DUI," said Rutherford. "My goal is to modify behavior."

Emma's Law is named after 6-year-old Emma Longstreet, a Midlands child killed in a drunken driving accident on New Year's Day in 2012.

Emma and her family were heading to church that morning when investigators say Billy Hutto, Jr. crashed into the Longstreet family's car.

Hutto was charged with felony DUI in connection with the crash. The accident spurred Emma's father, David Longstreet, into action. Since then, he has been an advocate for a change in the state's DUI laws and testified in the subcommittee hearing.

"This potential law will save hundreds of lives. We know the statistics. They're here. The facts are here. If Emma's Law were in place that day in 2012, and had interlocks been a part of the state's system on first time offense, it's a fact: Emma would still be alive today," said David.

In his remarks, David held up a signed affidavit from Hutto, which stated Hutto had been drinking for up to five hours the previous evening in various bars in Columbia.

"More importantly, I heard him tell the judge that day that if he had an ignition locking device in his car, that he would not have been able to start his car or operate that vehicle from midnight that evening to the morning hours," said David. "What does that say? The collision would have never taken place."

Joining David in testimony was Columbia Fire Chief Aubrey Jenkins, whose family was also struck by tragedy two weeks ago when his 3-year-old grand-nephew, Josiah Jenkins, was killed in a drunken driving crash.

Drawing upon his experience as chief, Aubrey issued a plea of his own with Josiah's mother and father by his side.

"I'm sworn to protect people," said Aubrey. "That's my job, but I felt so helpless because I could not do a thing for Josiah. Couldn't do a thing for him. This is something that just devastates families when people are out there drinking and driving."

"I've got a phone on my side that goes off every day with some type of emergency, whether it be fire, but also for wrecks and many of those wrecks we respond to are because of drunk driving. People don't die all the time because of drunk driving, but it devastates lives." 

The bill now moves to the full House Judiciary Committee for further debate.

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