GREENVILLE, SC —
Chief Justice Jean Toal issued an order to all state magistrate courts, telling them to clear their pending DUI cases. According to the Greenville News, this came after the Director of the Department of Public Safety, Mark Keel, told Toal his troopers are frustrated with the delay in disposing of DUI cases. Keel said in October there were more than 10,000 cases pending statewide, some of them up to ten years old.
Greenville County and the municipalities within that county have 1,266 pending cases, the second-highest total in the state behind Horry County. 13th Circuit Solicitor Walt Wilkins, the chief prosecutor for Greenville County, says the number is high because Greenville is the largest county in the state and local officers have focused heavily on making DUI arrests. But he says his office is very efficient in getting the cases through the system in a timely manner.
“From arrest date to the date of the trial, it takes us an average of eight months, which is pretty good,” says Wilkins.
He says long before Toal’s order, his office has focused on prosecuting DUI and other magistrate-level cases.
“We have a dedicated magistrate court prosecutor, a DUI prosecutor funded through a grant, and three contract attorneys who prosecute cases for us in magistrate court,” says Wilkins. “Few counties have those kinds of resources in magistrate court.”
He says Greenville County’s magistrate court is the only one in the state for which the solicitor sets the trial docket, which he believes gives him an advantage in getting more cases through the system. He is in the process of implementing the same system in Pickens County which has about 400 pending DUI cases.
Wilkins says his office will comply with Justice Toal’s order and is already working with Chief Magistrate Diane Cagle to schedule more court time for DUI trials. But he warns it could delay the prosecution of other crimes.
“We don’t just do DUI’s in magistrate court,” says Wilkins. “We’re also in charge of criminal domestic violence, third-degreee assualts, and property crimes less than $2,000. It could bump back the prosecution of those cases by a couple of months.”
But he says he and Judge Cagle are trying to avoid that by scheduling trials on weeknights and even weekends. Judge Cagle says they will schedule the oldest DUI cases first. Wilkins says his oldest cases date back to 2007.
Justice Toal has ordered the magistrate courts to give priority to jury trials that have been pending for more than 120 days and bench trials pending longer than 60 days. She wants the courts to give her a progress report in four months.
Spartanburg County has about 700 pending first-offense DUI cases, according to Murray Glenn, spokesperson for the 7th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. Glenn believes all counties will have a difficult time meeting the Chief Justice’s demands.
“This backlog is the result of a major increase in the number of DUI arrests compounded by limited resources in our court system,” says Glenn. “We are in a terrible situation with resources. The state system is just not set up to allow for speedy DUI trials. But we will use every resource available to push these cases through to comply with the order.”
He adds that the increase in DUI arrests in Spartanburg County is a good thing.
“I’ve seen the numbers of fatal accidents and overall accidents go down as the number of DUI arrests has gone up, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” says Glenn.