Appeals court reverses Breathalyzer ruling in Myrtle Beach restaurateur’s fatal DUI case

dwren@thesunnews.comOctober 30, 2013 

— The state’s Court of Appeals on Wednesday reversed a lower court’s decision to suppress results of a Breathalyzer test in restaurant owner Michael Hilton’s felony driving under the influence case, giving prosecutors the right to use the test results as evidence in Hilton’s upcoming trial.

Hilton, a 62-year-old Kentucky Fried Chicken franchisee, was charged with felony DUI involving death during the 2008 Harley-Davidson motorcycle rally. His case has stalled in circuit court as defense lawyers have tried to suppress evidence. The felony DUI charge stems from an incident on May 10, 2008, when 44-year-old Angelo Gonzalez was killed after the motorcycle he was driving struck the back of a pickup truck driven by Hilton. A passenger on the motorcycle was seriously injured.

Hilton was arrested at 10:15 that night and was given a Breathalyzer test at 12:32 the following morning. Hilton’s blood-alcohol content registered 0.15 percent, which is nearly twice the legal limit.

Hilton’s lawyers in 2011 filed a motion to suppress the results of the Breathalyzer test because it wasn’t administered within two hours of Hilton’s arrest. The S.C. General Assembly amended the state’s drunk driving laws in February 2009 to say that blood-alcohol tests must be administered within two hours of a person’s arrest, and Hilton’s lawyers argued that the amendment should retroactively apply to Hilton’s case. Circuit Court Judge Benjamin Culbertson agreed and signed an order last year suppressing Hilton’s test results.

The appeals court reversed Culbertson’s decision, citing a recent state Supreme Court ruling that a statute is not to be applied retroactively unless it contains specific language that shows the legislature intended the law to be applied retroactively. The appeals court’s three-judge panel said in a unanimous decision that the amendment to the DUI law lacked such language.

The legislature “clearly expressed its intent … that this amendment be applied prospectively,” the appeal court stated. “Consequently, the circuit court erred in applying [the statute] retroactively.”

A police report of the accident shows Hilton failed to yield the right-of-way when making a left turn from Kings Highway onto Wildwood Dunes Trail and pulled in front of the motorcycle Gonzalez was driving. Hilton left the accident scene and drove toward his home in the Dunes Club neighborhood, according to police. Hilton later walked back to the accident scene where he was identified as the pick-up truck driver by a witness. Hilton told officers he had been at a party where he had consumed two or three drinks, according to the police report.

The 2008 accident is the second fatality involving Hilton. In 1991, Hilton hit and killed a University of Georgia student who stepped in front of Hilton’s vehicle on U.S. 17 near Restaurant Row. Police said the incident was an accident and no charges were filed.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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