2012-05-10 / Top News


Paying the price for driving drunk
Florida Weekly Correspondent

It’s been called the $10,000 drink, the $10,000 drive home and the $10,000 mistake.

Get convicted of driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in Florida, and the costs quickly rack up, well beyond the $500 to $1,000 fines outlined in state statutes for first-time offenders. Factor in everything from towing and bail fees, court-mandated classes and insurance hikes, and the staggering financial toll could become the ultimate panacea for those not getting the message from the constant bombardment of public service announcements and warnings from local law enforcement agencies.

The Florida Department of Motor Vehicles estimates a first-time offense costs $8,000 but the consensus among Southwest Florida experts who deal daily with DUI places the price tag at $10,000 — not including property damage — and even more for multiple offenders.

Sound stiff? It’s meant to be. DUI is considered a serious offense in Florida.

And those are just the criminal charges. Fort Myers law firm Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner has won $310,000 and $13 million civil suits against drunk drivers, the latter on behalf of parents involved in an accident that seriously injured them and killed their two young sons.

“I always tell people it’s cheaper to hire a limousine to take them home than face a DUI,” says Scott Weinberg, an associate with the Punta Gorda office of Brown, Suarez & Rios and a former prosecutor.

Yes, there’s the public humiliation of being arrested for DUI and having your photo plastered on law enforcement and media websites, but the charge — one that carries a huge social stigma — is also accompanied by hefty fees for those convicted. Some —towing and bail for that go-to-jailfree ride in a patrol car — are incurred before the first court appearance.

Under Florida penalties, those convicted of a first offense are required to complete 50 hours of community service, face a minimum 180-day license revocation and must attend 12 hours of DUI school. They also face up to six months in jail (nine if a minor was in the vehicle) and up to a year of probation. A DUI is also a conviction with staying power: It remains on your Florida driving record for 75 years.

“A DUI arrest today is a lot different than it was 30 years ago,” says Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Cameron. “It’s a lifealtering charge. It effects your occupation, your employability. So many jobs require a valid driver’s license. There are also the sheer costs of court fees and penalties. It was very rare in the old days that someone would hire a high-priced attorney to try to get it pled down.”

Engaging the services of a lawyer is often less expensive — as long as the defendant wins his or her case or gets the charges reduced to reckless driving. With more than 3,000 arrests annually recorded by the Florida Highway Patrol and sheriff’s departments in Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties (not including arrests by city police departments), DUI is big business for defense attorneys. Law offices throughout Southwest Florida emphasize DUI as their forte. The home pages of their websites often scroll a menu of cases they’ve won.

“Our bread and butter is DUI,” says Mr. Weinberg, who figures his office handles about 100 cases annually in Charlotte County.

And most of us are guilty of impaired driving; we just haven’t gotten caught.

“You might be a homemaker, a mother of three at a party with your friends or have had too much wine for dinner. One thing different about a DUI is it affects someone who would never see the inside of a jail cell but they do because they committed the crime of DUI,” says Lt. Chris Miller, a spokesman for the Florida Highway Patrol’s F Troop, which covers Collier, Charlotte and Lee counties. “DUI affects all walks of life.”

“DUI is a crime everybody in society has committed,” says Mr. Weinberg. “Officers are so afraid if they let someone who’s borderline go, they’ll end up killing someone. When in doubt, in my opinion, they arrest.”

Something to consider, whether attending a backyard barbecue, patronizing a favorite bar or just having a couple of cocktails at a friend’s house.

The DUI economy

Despite common public perception, law enforcement agencies are just about the only entities that don’t benefit financially from a DUI arrest — unless there’s available grant money for DUI enforcement. When Sheriff Cameron took office in 2004 he reinstituted sobriety checkpoints and DUI education using existing manpower and without additional taxpayers’ dollars.

“We don’t make money off of tickets. That’s part of the reason our funding is set up the way it is,” says Lt. Miller.

Even that DUI class isn’t cheap. Enrollment costs $245, or more than $20 an hour, for the Southwest Florida Safety Council’s mandatory 12-hour program for first-timers. The course, ironically, also delves into the costs of the crime, says Linda Dundee, executive director of the private, nonprofit organization, which offers classes within the 20th Judicial Circuit that includes Charlotte, Collier and Lee counties.

“What they don’t always realize is the cost of being without a license and paying for a taxi or a friend to drive them around,” she says. “The initial court charges are bad enough, but they can also lose their jobs, have to pay restitution or repair a wrecked car. We used to talk about the $7,000 DUI but now it’s well beyond that.”

The safety council teaches the classes, which must be completed before driver’s license reinstatement, to about 3,500 annually within its five-county region. During the last year, more than 2,200 were first-time offenders; about 1,000 were level two, those with a least two DUI convictions, says Ms. Dundee.

The enrollment fee also covers a 60-minute substance abuse evaluation. The results can determine if mandated inpatient or outpatient counseling or treatment is needed, racking up additional expenses.

“We’re also seeing more cases of prescription medication abuse,” says Ms. Dundee. “It’s definitely a problem.”

Multiple offenders pay a $385 enrollment fee for the council’s 21-hour class and can work with the organization’s special supervision services program to acquire a restricted license. In addition to proving they’ve abstained from drugs or alcohol for a year, participants are required to attend 30- to 60-minute monthly sessions, pay more than $250 to enroll in the program and $55 a month for the duration of the restricted license — anywhere from two to five years, or $1,320 to $3,300.

Depending on the circumstances of a DUI — a minor was in the vehicle or blood alcohol was 0.20 — a judge might also order an ignition interlock for some first-time offenders. The device operates much like a breathalyzer, requiring drivers to blow into a tube before the car will start. The price tag? As much as $170 for the installation and initial deposit and a $67.50 monthly monitoring and calibration fee, the latter racking up another $405 for six month (the max- imum for a first-time offender) and at least $1,620 for the two-year minimum mandated for some second- and thirdtime convictions.

A judge may also require a DUI offender to attend Mothers Against Drunk Drivers’ victim impact panel. The program attracts about 80 to 100 people monthly and costs $20 to attend, according to Brenda Gellinger, the community action site leader and a senior services advocate with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office. They’ll watch a video chronicling the lives of victims impacted by drunk driving and have the opportunity to ask questions of the department’s deputy who trains the county’s DUI officers.

“He always tells people there are two types of impaired drivers: those with a medical problem or alcoholism, and the arrogant driver who thinks they will be fine or not get caught,” says Ms. Gellinger. “If you’re honest with yourself, you problem have driven impaired at some point. People just make bad choices.”

Many participants don’t come willingly.

“A lot of them come in with a chip on their shoulders. They say it’s all about the money,” she says. “They don’t consider the cost to taxpayers. Annually, DUI-related crashes cost $100 billion to society. There’s the officer’s and court’s time and you can’t put a dollar amount on lives lost and the people left behind.”

Time is money

There’s also the time factor: Sgt. Stephanie Eller with the Lee County Sheriff’s Office has worked DUI cases that have taken from one to four hours to process, depending on the cooperation of the arrestee, who may spend up to eight hours in a jail cell before being released. Court appearances, attending court-mandated classes and community service programs, and a 45-minute monthly recalibration for those with an ignition interlock devise — not counting the time to reach one’s destination — also amount to a good chunk of time. And there’s always the lingering possibility of jail time. State statutes give a judge the power to order up to six months imprisonment for first-timers; nine for a higher blood-alcohol level (the legal limit is 0.08) or if a child was in the vehicle.

Add even more time if you’ve hired an attorney and plan to go to trial.

“Ideally we try to get the charge reduced to reckless driving,” says Mr. Weinberg. “The prosecutor’s office is reasonable; they realize everyone screws up sometimes.”

In the courtroom, the defense will poke holes in the arrest warrant and the validity of field sobriety tests, which Mr. Weinberg says are often skewed to failure.

“It takes money for a strong defense,” says Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott. “Attorneys specialize in finding loopholes, contesting the calibration of the breathalyzer or even proving who was at the wheel if there are no witnesses. A lot of cases are pleaded down to willful wanton reckless driving for first-time offenders. It saves money involved in trials and courtroom theatrics by attorneys.”

Big money cases

Mr. Weinberg says five of his office’s 100 annual cases go to trial, including one in April which the firm won. The defendant was charged with a second DUI after he was pulled over en route to taking a friend to the hospital following a bar fight.

“The officer said my client stared into space,” he says. “He’s schizophrenic.”

Mr. Weinberg says many juries can relate to those accused of driving under the influence.

“When you try major cases like sex offenders, a jury can’t relate,” he says. “A jury is more favorable to someone charged with DUI; almost everyone has had two to three drinks and driven.”

Not so for civil jury panels, according to Bruce L. Scheiner, whose firm has successfully represented a number of victims of drunk or drugged driving.

“Jurors do not like drunk drivers,” he says. “They get angry at the fact that people drink and get into their car and cause harm to someone else. In the old days in the West, if you harmed someone you’d put on your guns and shot them. Today we’re a lot more civilized … bringing legal action to get compensated for a loss.”

One of the firm’s biggest cases was that $13 million it won in a Fort Myers drunk driving accident. It also recovered $310,000 for a Georgia woman who was injured by a drunk driver on Airport Pulling Road in Naples.

Civil cases are filed after a criminal conviction, continuing the convicted driver’s legal headaches years after the arrests. Plaintiffs have two years to sue in wrongful death cases; four in other DUI-related claims, says Mr. Scheiner.

Civil cases are also less stringent; a defendant’s prior DUI convictions are admissible in court and the jury, says Mr. Scheiner, “works together. They deliberate and talk to award special damages for medical bills, lost wages, future lost wages and future medical bills and the intangible: pain, suffering, loss and the inability to enjoy life.

“It’s really a shame but drinking and driving is built into our culture,” he continues. “It emanates not only from people having regular drinking habits but in Florida we don’t have good mass transit. Unfortunately drunk driving happens regularly. A lot of times it’s not just a mistake but the fact someone has a drinking problem and keeps drinking and driving.” ¦

The cost of a DUI

 Court fines: $500 to more than $1,000 for first-time offenses; $1,000 to more than $5,000 for multiple offenders.

 Attorney fees: $1,500 or more depending on the complexities of the case.

 DUI classes: Enrollment is $245 for firsttime offenders; $385 for those with two or more DUI convictions.

 Additional charges: Bail, vehicle towing, vehicle impoundment, biannual vehicle registration, insurance hikes.

 Ignition interlock: $170 for installation and deposit, another $405 for six months (the max for a first-time offender) and at least $1,620 for multiple offenders.

 Restricted license/special supervision services: $250 to enroll in the program, $55 a month for the duration of the restricted license — anywhere from two to five years, or $1,320 to $3,300.

 Restitution: Repaying the cost of damage to property.

 Civil action: Recent jury awards for drunk-diving cases filed by Associates and Bruce L. Scheiner, $310,000 to $13 million.

 Time: A minimum of 62 hours for courtmandated DUI classes and community service, in addition to court appearances, jail time upon arrest, counseling or special services, if needed.

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