Live 5 investigates: Delays in DUI prosecution

CHARLESTON COUNTY, SC (WCSC) - Live 5 News has spent time investigating why it takes so long to prosecute DUI cases.

As an example, we looked at a recent case involving 24-year-old Lisa Pistolis.

Pistolis was arrested for a deadly DUI accident on Interstate 526 on January 27, 2013.  North Charleston police say Pistolis was drunk when she crashed into a Jeep and caused it to roll over.

The driver, 35-year-old Serjei Cahuantzi was killed.  Cahuantzi worked as a bartender at Joe Pasta in downtown Charleston.

Restaurant manager Jody Wright was a close friend.

"We've lost a very close friend. I think it was senseless," Wright said.

It was not Pistolis' first DUI arrest.

Charleston County sheriff's deputies arrested her in February 2012, after a deputy said he saw her speeding.

Fast forward almost one year to the fatal accident involving Cahuantzi.  Some would argue she should not have been able to be behind the wheel, but according to state law, drivers don't automatically lose their license on a first offense.

After that first arrest in 2012, she took a breathalyzer test, and had a blood alcohol level of .12, according to an incident report.

Even if she had lost her license, Pistolis would have had a chance to apply for a provisional license while she waited for her court date.

"The stakes are high and I think people realize that," said Charleston DUI defense attorney Tim Kulp.

Kulp said drivers can be arrested for driving under the influence and be back on the road in no time.

"I would imagine to be totally safe, that there are probably, and this is a low number: 50 people driving right now with a pending DUI case," Kulp said.

"I'm not gonna say that I'm angry over any of it really, other than just thinking that's so irresponsible," said Wright after learning Pistols was out on bond for another DUI when she was charged in the deadly accident.

So why hasn't Pistolis' first DUI case gone to trial?

"There's an ever increasing number of DUI cases for these courts to deal with," Kulp explained.

Two years ago, State Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal ordered Charleston County magistrates to get the DUI case load down by trying more cases.

Charleston County officials say since that order came down, the county has gotten the job done.

But Kulp says more factors come into play that can delay a DUI case going to trial quickly.

He says the cases are very complex and deal with scientific evidence.

"And since breath alcohol readings under our law are now tied to the amount of jail time that you might get if convicted, that scientific evidence needs to undergo great scrutiny," said Kulp.

Kulp there may be one more reason for a delay in a DUI case.

"I think people who are charged with dui request trial by jury."

That's exactly what Lisa Pistolis did after her first arrest.

She's still waiting, because of the length of time it takes to call a jury trial.

So is Jody Wright who's waiting for Pistolis to stand trial for her friend's death.

"This is something she is going to have to live with for the rest of her life. That she's taken someone's life and she will most likely be in prison."

Charleston County prosecutes first offense DUI cases.

We reached out to Charleston County administrator Kurt Taylor for a response to our investigation.

In a prepared statement, Taylor said, "There are many factors that affect how cases move on the trial docket. Caseload, motions for delays by Defendants' lawyers, continuances granted for any number of reasons, unavailability of police or other witnesses, and so on. It is therefore impossible to generalize all these reasons and apply them to the question of why a particular case took longer than another to come to trial."

As for Pistolis' first DUI arrest, it has finally been scheduled for trial on May 6, 2013, according to court records.

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