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Lightning strike delays DUI cases across state

  • Monday, August 5, 2013

Local police agencies are operating as normal when patrolling and making arrests for alleged DUI offenders despite a computer server failure at the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division. IMAGE BY METROCREATIVE

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The South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division is hard at work trying to recover 22 years worth of evidence from a computer server that went down recently.

All drunk driving cases have been postponed as officials work to retrieve the database of suspects’ Breathalyzer tests that has not been accessible since July 5.

For Mount Pleasant, which leads the state in DUI arrests, this snafu has had little effect on municipal cases.

Mount Pleasant DUI attorney Edward Phipps told the Moultrie News, “In reality it hasn’t affected my clients. It is a process to collect that information and it takes three to four months to collect and prepare for a DUI case. So I get my court dates pushed back until it is all gathered.”

Phipps said if he does not have everything he needs to go to hearing he asks for a continuance. Phipps added that if, by chance, any of the needed information is lost or destroyed, the case will likely get dismissed.

He explained that the database contains exculpatory evidence that could prove someone innocent and by the rules of the law requires that it be provided. “If it is destroyed, then it is their fault,” he said.

Phipps is also a former traffic officer for the Town of Mount Pleasant Police Department (1993-1999), where he specialized in Driving Under the Influence (DUI) enforcement and traffic fatality accident reconstruction.

He works closely with the town’s prosecutor Ira Grossman, with whom he was once colleagues.

“Ira is a very efficient prosecutor. I generally jury trial all my cases so as not to inconvenience the officer who would otherwise have to go to what is called the first appearance. I let them know way in advance that my client or my case is going to jury trial. It benefits Ira, me and the judicial efficiency of the court,” said Phipps.

He also said that the bigger picture is one to be concerned about.

“In light of the infiltration into our Department of Revenue, this kind of gives us the tone of where the government is in relations to their IT department. They are just extremely behind,” said Phipps.

“This glitch in the system, coming on the heels of the Revenue Department breech is interesting in that they don’t have more of a catastrophic plan in place that would have this back up in running in less time.”

Phipps said like all DUI attorneys, he uses the data regularly as it contains data master results from all machines in the state.

“I could run a report for all results from Mount Pleasant records in any time batch (such as the last four months) to determine if there perhaps is anything wrong with a particular machine such as one in particular reading series of high rates,” he said.

Brian Burke of Bluestien, Johnson and Burke, also an East Cooper attorney in private practice since 2003 said, “Fortunately the courts look after prejudice of a defendant has verses the alternative of the court looking after the prosecutor and the state and saying ‘there is nothing we can do.’ At this point we’ve just put off all trials because the state can’t move forward and prosecute if they can’t recover the information. Because it will result in dismissal,” Burke explained.

It is the state’s responsibility to safe guard all evidence whether it is electronic or written.

Burke, also a former Mount Pleasant Police Officer from 1996 to 1999, said he did not believe there has been any prejudice toward the defendants at this point because ultimately it will result in a dismissal if the data is not available.

He said it would be interesting to see how quickly prosecutors move once the database is up and available again. He believes the prosecutors will allow for the due rights process to prevail.

Specifically because Burke had a case scheduled for the week of July 29 and was informed by the prosecutor of the delay before the notice came out from SLED. That particular prosecutor informed him that everyone would be kept posted and that everything was simply on stand-by.

At this time neither prosecutors nor defense attorneys can access test results and videos that date to 1991.

Officials suspect lightning hit a transformer, causing an electronic device in SLED’s generator system, called a rectifier, to fail and the power supply to become unstable. The entire system was taken down for repair. Other SLED servers were back online after a couple of hours, Thom Berry, SLED spokesperson said in a statement.

He insisted none of the data has been lost.

State law requires the filming of Breathalyzer tests. Normally, the readings and video from law enforcement agencies across the state are transferred to SLED’s server, generally overnight, allowing prosecutors and defense attorneys to access them through a secure website. While it’s down, the data is being stored on agencies’ individual machines, Berry said.

Mount Pleasant Police Department spokesman Major Stan Gragg said, “for the Mount Pleasant Police Department, it is business as usual.”

In addition, Grossman said that “As long as the files come back in the beginning of August it shouldn’t create much of a delay at all, in any of our cases.”

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