Drugs plague Lowcountry roads, account for 1 in every 9 DUIs

By Valencia

HANAHAN, S.C. (WCIV) - When Officer Charles Carnes began policing the streets of Hanahan six years ago, he said drugged drivers only showed up once in every 50 traffic DUIs. Today, records show 1 in every 9.

"You're looking at things like Ambien," said Carnes. "People take their medicine before they go to sleep and they drive on that."

Driving under the influence of drugs is a growing epidemic across the Palmetto state. In 2010, 200 drivers were killed as a result of drugged driving.

"You know the old school way of thinking was, 'Well, they didn't provide a .08 or higher so they're not intoxicated.' And, we're here to tell you, that's wrong," Carnes said.

Carnes is a drug recognition expert. He is one of only about 20 officers in the Lowcountry who are trained to recognize when a person is drugged.

"We do a 12-step systematic evaluation and at the completion of that is a urine test," he said.

Carnes says the officers are taught to read people's eyes and body language.

"Usually they will try to hide about it and lie. But, once they find out that I've got all this training they'll come clean and they'll tell you, 'Yes, I took my Lortab 30 minutes before I got behind the wheel,'" Carnes said.

Carnes says many of the people he arrested were high on what he calls the "Lowcountry Cocktail," a mix of illegal drugs and alcohol.

"(It's) where they take alcohol and mix it with just about everything. I've seen people mixing their marijuana with alcohol. I've seen marijuana mixed with PCP. I've seen methamphetamines mixed with marijuana; heroine mixed with powdered cocaine," he said.

A first-time drugged driving offender is usually sentenced to 30-days incarceration, a $1,000 fine and having his license revoked.

"There's obviously a number of things that can aggravate the circumstances," said David Aylor, prosecutor for the City of Hanahan. "Often blood will be taken and if that blood is taken and you find several substances in it that will really sort of ramp what you may want to go forward with as far as punishments."

But Aylor said the prosecution becomes more difficult when the driver is high on a difficult drug to detect - like bath salts.

"If the individual doesn't register anything on the breathalyzer and whatever they have in their system is not detected, it's going to make the case very difficult to try to be able to prove," he said.

Aylor says the court system sees few repeat offenders and most first-time offenders go through private counseling and treatment.