S.C. investigations face scrutiny in wake of fatal crashes

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Investigation scrutiny

Caption: A man was charged with boating under the influence on what would have been Mallory Beach’s 20th birthday.

Boating season brought increased scrutiny of how boat crash investigations are handled in South Carolina, particularly after 19-year-old Mallory Beach died this February in a boating collision in Beaufort County.

Some have questioned why the S.C. Department of Natural Resources didn’t do sobriety tests at the scene of that crash that involved a family member of a prominent legal family in the area, according to The (Charleston) Post and Courier.

It wasn’t the first time the agency has received criticism for its investigations involving sobriety testing; similar questions arose in 2017 after a Columbia auto dealer was involved in a boat crash that killed two people on Lake Murray, according to the newspaper.

DNR defended the way they conduct investigations, telling the newspaper that the agency’s six officers who investigate boating fatalities are trained in crash reconstruction.

When a boat carrying six people in Beaufort County crashed in February, local police officers arrived first at the scene. Five of the boat’s six passengers were “grossly intoxicated,” according to a police report. The other, Beach, was missing.

It wasn’t clear from interviews, who was driving the boat, but authorities were able to narrow it down to two of the passengers, one of whom was Paul Murdaugh, authorities told the paper.

A DNR investigator did not do a sobriety test on the suspected drivers because they were taken to the hospital before he arrived at the scene. Family members of the injured parties, including suspected operator Murdaugh, would not speak with investigators.

Murdaugh is part of a family of influential attorneys with deep roots in the Hampton County area, fueling concerns by citizens of light treatment by DNR officials. DNR denied that was the case.

Beach’s body was found a week after the crash. On what would have been her 20th birthday, Murdaugh was charged by the S.C. Attorney General’s Office with boating under the influence, causing death and boating under the influence, causing great bodily injury.

A law was proposed after a 2014 boat fatality that sought to take the guesswork out of whether or not to give a person a sobriety test after a fatal boat crash.

The law, introduced by state Sen. Kevin Johnson, would have required that every person who operates a watercraft that is involved in a fatal crash, or one that causes great bodily injury, must take drug and alcohol tests.

“I just think if anybody goes out there to operate a watercraft under the influence, that’s something they should have to answer to,” said Johnson.

But in 2017, the bill stalled in the Fish, Game and Forestry Committee. Johnson said he wished it would have been assigned to a subcommittee so lawmakers could have heard the pros and cons of the bill.

Johnson said he may refile it in the future.

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