Supreme Court Seal
South Carolina
JUDICIAL DEPARTMENT
Site Map | Feedback
2005-UP-416 - State v. Bennett

THIS OPINION HAS NO PRECEDENTIAL VALUE.  IT SHOULD NOT BE CITED OR RELIED ON AS PRECEDENT IN ANY PROCEEDING EXCEPT AS PROVIDED BY RULE 239(d)(2), SCACR.

THE STATE OF SOUTH CAROLINA
In The Court of Appeals

The State,        Respondent,

v.

Stanley B. Bennett,        Appellant.


Appeal From Orangeburg County
Edward B. Cottingham, Circuit Court Judge


Unpublished Opinion No. 2005-UP-416
Submitted May 1, 2005 – Filed June 27, 2005


AFFIRMED


Assistant Appellate Defender Eleanor Duffy Cleary, Office of Appellate Defense, of Columbia, for Appellant.

Attorney General Henry Dargan McMaster, Chief Deputy Attorney General John W. McIntosh, Assistant Deputy Attorney General Salley W. Elliott, Assistant Attorney General David A. Spencer, Office of the Attorney General, all of Columbia, and Robert Douglas Robbins, of Charleston, for Respondent.

PER CURIAM:  Stanley Bennett appeals from his convictions for driving under suspension (DUS), 4th, and habitual traffic offender, arguing the trial judge erred by allowing the admission of his entire driving record into evidence.  We affirm.[1] 

FACTS

On August 31, 2002, Bennett overturned his sports utility vehicle in a one-car accident on I-26.  When the police officer arrived at the scene of the accident, Bennett was already outside of the vehicle and talking to an off-duty emergency services technician who stopped to help.  The officer testified that Bennett told him he was the driver of the vehicle, and he was alone in the vehicle at the time of the accident.  However, Bennett testified he was not driving the vehicle and prior to the officer’s arrival the driver had left the scene of the accident to get help.  When the officer asked Bennett for his license, Bennett told the officer it was inside the overturned vehicle.  After obtaining Bennett’s name and calling the dispatch, the officer discovered that Bennett’s license was suspended and the Department of Public Safety (the “Department”) had declared him a habitual offender.

During a jury trial on March 20, 2003, Bennett stipulated to jurisdiction in circuit court and objected to the admission of his prior three convictions for DUS.  However, the trial judge ruled they were admissible to prove the habitual offender charge, and therefore, there was no prejudice to Bennett.  The trial judge also noted that the State did not have to accept Bennett’s offer to stipulate to the existence of prior offenses when the existence of the prior offenses was necessary to establish jurisdiction of the circuit court.  Bennett objected to the admission of his entire driving record unless it showed only Bennett’s three prior convictions for DUS that were necessary to establish jurisdiction, arguing the entire record was unduly prejudicial and not relevant.  The trial judge ruled that the statute permits the entire record to be entered into evidence.  Thus, at trial, the State introduced letters from the Department stating that Bennett was under suspension for DUS and for being a habitual offender.  The State also introduced a certified copy of Bennett’s driving record, which listed numerous violations of traffic laws including convictions for driving under the influence, convictions for DUS, and suspensions for failing to take a breathalyzer.  Bennett was found guilty as charged.  He was sentenced to six months in prison for DUS and five years, suspended to three, and three years probation for driving after being declared a habitual offender.  Bennett appeals.         

STANDARD OF REVIEW

In criminal cases, the appellate court reviews errors of law only.  State v. Wilson, 345 S.C. 1, 5-6, 545 S.E.2d 827, 829 (2001).  “The admission of evidence is left to the discretion of the trial judge, and will not be disturbed on appeal absent an abuse of discretion by the trial judge.”  State v. James, 355 S.C. 25, 30, 583 S.E.2d 745, 747 (2003).

LAW/ANALYSIS

Bennett argues the trial judge erred by allowing the admission of his entire driving record into evidence during his trial for DUS and driving after the Department had declared him a habitual offender.  We disagree.

To prove that Bennett was driving under suspension, the State had to prove that Bennett was operating a motor vehicle on the public highway while his license was suspended.  State v. Johnson, 299 S.C. 130, 132, 382 S.E.2d 909, 910 (1989).  To establish jurisdiction in the trial court, the State was required to prove that Bennett had two or more prior suspensions.  State v. Anderson, 318 S.C. 395, 398-399, 458 S.E.2d 56, 58 (Ct. App. 1995).  Bennett stipulated to jurisdiction in circuit court; however, the State refused to accept the stipulation.  In State v. James, our supreme court held that “the State cannot be forced to accept a defendant’s stipulation to prior convictions because that would interfere with the State’s right to prove its case with ‘evidence of its own choosing.’”  355 S.C. 25, 34, 583 S.E.2d 745, 749 (2003) (quoting State v. Hamilton, 327 S.C. 440, 445, 486 S.E.2d 512, 514 (1997)). 

Bennett asserts the State was required to accept his offer to stipulate under Section 56-5-2980 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2004), which provides that “[i]f the defendant stipulates that the charge constitutes a second or subsequent offense, the indictment shall not contain allegations of prior offenses and evidence of such prior offenses must not be introduced.”  However, section 56-5-2980 does not apply to the crimes of DUS or habitual offender.  Section 56-5-2980 states that it only applies to trials and proceedings “in which the defendant is charged with a violation of Section 56-5-2920 [reckless driving], 56-5-2930 [operating a vehicle under the influence], or 56-5-2933 [driving with an unlawful alcohol concentration].”  See Anderson, 318 S.C. at 399 n.2, 458 S.E.2d at 58 n.2 (“The plain meaning of the statute [§ 56-5-2980], which has no application to a charge of DUS, suggests that the solicitor must assent before a stipulation is effective.”).  Since the State refused to accept the stipulation and was not required to by the statute, the State had to prove that the trial court had subject matter jurisdiction of the DUS charge.  Anderson, 318 S.C. at 398-399, 458 S.E.2d at 58.  Therefore, “[a]bsent a stipulation as to subject matter jurisdiction, [Bennett] had no real right to object to the admission into evidence of his prior DUS . . . conviction[].”  Id. at 399, 458 S.E.2d at 58.  Further, the trial judge instructed the jury that Bennett’s prior record was “introduced solely for the purpose of showing jurisdiction in [trial] court.”  Thus, the trial court did not abuse its discretion in admitting a certified copy of Bennett’s driving record and letters from the Department stating that Bennett was under suspension for DUS and for being a habitual offender.  Additionally, Bennett was not prejudiced by the admission into evidence of prior convictions because the trial court gave a sufficient limiting instruction to the jury.   

The Department has the authority to declare a person a habitual offender by following the procedures outlined in section 56-1-1030 of the South Carolina Code (Supp. 2004).  Pursuant to this statute, the Department had adjudicated Bennett to be a habitual offender.  To prove that Bennett was driving after having been declared a habitual offender, the State was required to show that Bennett had been found to be a habitual offender and was operating a motor vehicle while the decision of the Department prohibiting operation was in effect.  S.C. Code Ann. § 56-1-1100 (Supp. 2004).

Bennett argues that the judge should not have allowed the State to introduce his whole driving record into evidence; however, the trial judge had already properly admitted his prior convictions for DUS to establish jurisdiction of the court.  Although Bennett’s prior record of driving under the influence and violation of the implied consent law may have been inadmissible, we find that the evidence was not unduly prejudicial to Bennett based on the entire record in the case and the judge’s limiting instruction to the jury.  Additionally, we hold the admission of the evidence was harmless error in light of the overwhelming evidence against Bennett.  See State v. McLeod, 362 S.C. 73, 82, 606 S.E.2d 215, 220 (Ct. App. 2004) (holding error is harmless where it could not reasonably have affected the result of the trial).

AFFIRMED.

HEARN, C.J., BEATTY, and SHORT, JJ., concur.


[1] We decide this case without oral argument pursuant to Rule 215, SCACR.