Former Bluffton firefighter arrested on DUI charge in 2021 pleaded guilty to lesser charge

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A former Bluffton firefighter who previously flipped his car on its side and was arrested on a driving under the influence charge pleaded guilty to a less serious charge last week, according to court records and police.

Andrew Eldridge Jr., 23, of Bluffton pleaded guilty to reckless driving and was fined $440 on Jan. 18 in Hardeeville municipal court, records show.

The Hardeeville Police Department charged him with first offense DUI on Jan. 15, 2021, after he hit a fence and several parked cars early in the morning at the Palisades at New River apartment complex.

Lt. Jonah Jenkins with Hardeeville Police said at the time that Eldridge’s blood-alcohol content was above 0.06, but his court-listed charge said he was charged with DUI for having a BAC above 0.16.

At the time of his arrest, Eldridge was suspended from the Bluffton Fire Township District, Capt. Randy Hunter with the department said. On Wednesday, Hunter said he no longer works for the department but that he could not elaborate further.

Eldridge did not respond to a Facebook message sent Wednesday afternoon. A reporter left a message for his lawyer, Sam Bauer of Bauer & Metro P.C. on Hilton Head Island.

Reckless driving means six points off Eldridge’s license, but it comes with none of the severe penalties of a first-offense DUI, which can include a suspended license, special insurance rider, and hike in premiums.

Reached last week, Jenkins said Eldridge was required to take alcohol education classes as part of the plea.

Hardeeville Municipal Judge Nancy Gutierrez administered the plea, court documents said.

Reckless driving is a lesser charge that drivers often plead guilty to in the Lowcountry because prosecutors have a difficult time proving DUI cases.

Only about one in three first-offense DUI cases result in a DUI conviction in Beaufort County, according to a March 2020 report in The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette on low conviction rates.

South Carolina’s DUI law is byzantine, and DUI lawyers are able to exploit its loopholes, leading to low conviction rates, according to 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone, who is quoted in the article.

Police officers prosecute these low-level DUI cases, which can lead to difficulties as police officers without law degrees tangle with defense lawyers.

The Solicitor’s Office does not typically handle low-level DUI cases, but the Beaufort County Council asked it to help in December 2019. Solicitor’s Office prosecutors now assist in cases in unincorporated Beaufort County, according to spokesperson Jeff Kidd. They don’t assist in these cases in local municipalities nor in Jasper County, which is where Eldridge’s guilty plea took place.

Beaufort County’s conviction rates lag behind other S.C. counties, according to the March 2020 report.

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