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Mandatory car breathalyzer test passes Senate fiscal policy committee

Senior Editor Top Stories

Another bill moving through the upper chamber would make a first refusal a crime

Old CapitolIn an effort to curb drunk driving, lawmakers are looking to tack hefty penalties onto drivers before they are ever convicted who refuse to take a breathalyzer test upon an arrest.

According to two bills moving through the Senate, arrested drivers who refuse a breathalyzer for the first time would now be committing a second-degree misdemeanor, per SB 232, and would be required to have a personal breathalyzer known as an “ignition interlock device” placed in their car for a year, per SB 260, a device that can cost more than $1,000.

The latter bill, SB 260, passed with a vote of 19-1 in the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee on February 7, its third and final stop before heading to the floor, and has an identical House companion, HB 39, where it has cleared two of three assigned panels.

Senate Sponsor Nick DiCeglie, a St. Petersburg Republican, said during his closing on the bill on February 7 that “driving is a privilege, it is not a right.”

DiCeglie then thanked advocates, including a local Tallahassee police officer who conducts DUI enforcement and who was nearly killed by a driver under the influence, for speaking in favor of the measure.

“This bill is about accountability. We’ve heard some great testimony today. I appreciate them coming here,” DiCeglie said. “Drunk driving is a major problem in our state… There are a lot of people that have refused to take a breathalyzer test… The best way to not be in this situation is to not drive drunk.”

About 35% of Floridians arrested for drunk driving refuse a breathalyzer test, compared to the national average of 24%, according to a Senate staff analysis.

Tallahassee-based Kristen Allen, the Florida executive director for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, spoke in support of the bill, saying that 1,115 people were killed in the state from drunk driving in 2022.

She noted that from 2006-2022 ignition interlock devices “have stopped over 131,000 attempts to drive with a blood-alcohol concentration of .08 or above; nearly 12,000 in 2022 alone.”

Allen is right that ignition interlock devices are already used in Florida, but currently, they are only required after a person has been convicted of a DUI.

And while these devices reduce DUI rearrests while installed, that reduction largely disappears after they are removed, per a 2014 OPPAGA study cited in the Senate staff analysis.

The only senator who debated on the bill was Geraldine Thompson, a Democrat from Windermere, who was also the only lawmaker to vote against the measure in committee.

“Unfortunately, I cannot support the bill because I really believe in due process,” Thompson said. “I believe that you are presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty. And under this bill, there is no finding that an individual was driving under the influence, however, that person is required to obtain the interlocking device.”

She went on: “And I think that there are legitimate reasons why a person may be perceived to be driving under the influence. It can be a medical issue. It can be medication, something of that sort. And so, I think that until the person is proven to have been driving under the influence, they should be not penalized.”

The Bar News previously reported that the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has concerns that the measure skirts due process.

The association’s legislative chair, Aaron Wayt, repeated some of those concerns during the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee meeting. Wayt’s group is down on the bill.

“Currently, there’s already multiple ignition interlock device penalties in law. If you’re a repeat offender; if you blow more than a .15, around half the legal limit; or if you have someone under the age of 18 in the car; you get an ignition interlock device if you’re convicted in court,” Wayt said. “This penalty for refusals is being placed after the arrest and most likely before the person has their first court date.”

Wayt added: “So if passed, this bill would create an odd structure as it relates to public safety, because we’re placing a device on first offenses who refuse a breath test right after the arrest but repeat offenders and people who blow three times the legal limit get their day in court.”

Wayt previously raised in the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice on January 23 that there are “innocent” reasons to refuse a breathalyzer test. Tests are often 18 years old and unreliable, he told the panel, and defense attorneys can’t inspect them when the DUI case goes to trial.

During the previous legislative session, in 2023, the committee secured $3.5 million from state trust funds for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to procure new breathalyzers.

But as Vice Chair Jennifer Bradley, a Republican attorney from Fleming Island, acknowledged during the senate panel discussion on January 23, “they are being procured, although not at the speed I think that we would like.”

Already, when a person refuses the breathalyzer, their license is immediately suspended through an administrative process at the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. If it’s their first refusal, the suspension is for a year. For every refusal after that, the suspension is for 18 months.

Florida law has also considered a second or subsequent refusal to take a breathalyzer test upon arrest for drunk driving a misdemeanor since 2002. In 2021, lawmakers clarified that it was a misdemeanor of the first degree, punishable by jail time up to one year.

Now, in the other bill, SB 232, the Senate sponsor, Tom Wright, a Republican from Port Orange, argues lawmakers now need to make a first refusal a misdemeanor of the second degree.

“Currently, people are refusing to take the test,” said Wright when presenting the bill to the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice on January 23, where it passed unanimously. “So, we’re trying to strengthen the bill.”

Wright added: “Our intention here is to reduce the number of DUI situations that are happening on our public roadways each and every day.”

Wright’s bill still has two committees to clear in the Senate before it heads to the floor. A House companion, HB 871, has yet to be heard. The legislative session is scheduled to end March 8.

Related stories:

Criminal defense bar says alcohol-device bill may skirt due process

Analysis suggests alcohol-related car device bill could increase driver license review hearings

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