Driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs is illegal in Florida, as well as in every other state. Each state's driving under the influence (DUI) laws are enacted by that state's legislature and differ from those in other states. That's why it's important for Florida drivers to understand what happens if they get stopped for the first time for a DUI. The consequences and penalties for a first-offense DUI conviction will likely look different from those in other states, and even the elements of a Florida DUI may be unique.
First Offense DUI Conviction
Anyone arrested in Florida for a first-offense DUI is going to want to cut to the chase: What are the potential penalties they face? First it is important to note that a boating under the influence (BUI) conviction counts as a prior for a DUI offense. That means if a person has been convicted twice of BUIs in the recent past, a conviction for driving under the influence is not treated as a first offense for penalties; it would be treated as a third offense.
In addition, a first-offense DUI can be a simple DUI where a driver is pulled over and found to be intoxicated or it can be a more serious DUI with one or more aggravating factors. For example, if the driver has a very high blood alcohol level (BAL), a passenger who is a minor, causes property damage, or causes personal injury to another person or death, the charge is far more serious, and the penalties much higher.
For a simple, first-offense DUI conviction where the driver has no prior DUI or BUI convictions, the potential penalties include license suspension, fines, jail time and/or probation and attendance at DUI school. Fines for a first offense run from $500 to $1,000; jail time of up to six months; probation of up to one year, including 50 hours of community service; and a 10-day vehicle impound. The administrative penalty will be a driver's license suspension of at least 180 days and, at most, one year.
So that is what a driver is facing for a simple, first-offense DUI. It is a good idea to obtain a working knowledge of the basic DUI laws in Florida, including potential penalties for aggravated DUI charges. This will assist drivers in regulating their behavior to avoid a DUI conviction in the first place.
Driving Under the Influence
Most people think of DUIs as targeting drinking and driving. And that is certainly an important part of the DUI laws in Florida. These laws are found in the Florida Statutes Motor Vehicles Law, starting at Section 316.193, where the different DUI crimes are defined and the penalties set forth.
The statutes make it illegal for anyone to drive in Florida while their faculties are significantly impaired by alcohol. That has been defined by the courts to mean driving when your normal faculties are significantly diminished. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, some 25 percent of all motor vehicle deaths involve impaired driving.
Regular DUI Conviction for Alcohol
A person violates the law in Florida when they operate a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol. The regular DUI does not specify how much alcohol must be involved, only that a person consumes enough alcohol that their normal faculties are impaired.
Alcohol affects people differently, depending on many factors including the person's gender, weight and the amount of food they ate before or while drinking. The type of alcohol consumed and the period of time in which it was consumed are also relevant in how the drinking impacts an individual. For a small person who hasn't eaten all day, a few glasses of wine downed after work may be sufficient for impairment.
Signs Law Enforcement Personnel Are Trained to Spot
Law enforcement personnel often stop a vehicle for erratic driving or illegal maneuvers, like an illegal left turn, speeding or weaving. At the time they make the stop, they have no idea whether alcohol is involved, but they are trained to look for signs of drinking when they talk to the driver.
They might smell alcohol on their breath, notice a beer bottle in the car or notice slurred speech or a reddened face. They can ask the driver to do a series of roadside sobriety tests. If the officers are convinced that the driver is under the influence of alcohol, they can make an arrest and take the driver into custody for booking.
Per Se DUI for Alcohol
A second type of DUI in Florida involves a breath test or other chemical test that determines the level of alcohol in the person's blood or breath. The statute specifies that the legal limit for blood alcohol is 0.08 percent, and that a person with a BAL of 0.08 percent or higher is presumed to be intoxicated.
This is called a per se DUI. The phrase "per se" is Latin for "in and of itself." Proof that a person was operating a vehicle with a BAL of 0.08 percent or higher is enough, in and of itself, to establish that they were intoxicated for the purposes of a DUI. The BAL limit is 0.04 percent for a commercial driver and 0.02 percent for those under the age of 21.
Driving Under the Influence of Drugs
Impaired driving in the state of Florida is not limited to drunk driving or alcohol use. The statute also specifies that it is illegal for an individual to drive when their normal faculties are impaired by chemical substances or controlled substances. Each of these terms is defined in the statute but, generally, they refer to drug use.
Chemical substances are said to include: "toluol, hexane, trichloroethylene, acetone, toluene, ethyl acetate, methyl ethyl ketone, trichloroethane, isopropanol, methyl isobutyl ketone, ethylene glycol monomethyl ether acetate, cyclohexanone, nitrous oxide, diethyl ether, alkyl nitrites (butyl nitrite) and similar substances." These are products recreational drug users "huff" to get high.
Similarly, a very long list of controlled substances is found in the Florida drug codes. It includes all of the usual recreational drugs, like cannabis, cocaine and heroin, as well as opioids and similar drugs. Controlled substances are not necessarily illegal drugs. For example, opioids are perfectly legal and prescribed for pain. But though it is legal for a person to take legal drugs when prescribed, it is not legal for them to drive impaired after taking them.
No Per Se DUI for Drugs
Is there a legal limit for drugs? There is not, in Florida. While chemical testing (largely blood and urine tests) can determine whether a person has drugs in their system, the state has not set a limit after which impairment or intoxication by those drugs is presumed under the law. That means prosecutors must offer evidence of impairment at every drug DUI trial in Florida.
Evidence of drug impairment is not all that different from evidence of alcohol impairment for a regular DUI. It usually includes witness testimony from the police officers who stopped the car both as to erratic or illegal driving and as to overt signs of drug use. For example, if the drug is marijuana, there is the distinctive smell, as well as horizontal gaze nystagmus (HGN), or rapid eye movements, discernible from conducting an eye test.
There has been an increase in drug DUI cases throughout Florida. In response, law enforcement agencies are developing more comprehensive testing procedures for drugs and controlled substances. This includes training officers as Drug Recognition Technicians (DRTs) or Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) and teaching them how to administer Drug Influence Evaluation exercises.
Deemed Driver Consent to Testing
In Florida, every driver is deemed to consent to chemical testing when they are arrested for a DUI. That means that a person arrested by the police on a reasonable suspicion of driving under the influence must either agree to take a chemical test or will suffer penalties.
These penalties can be administrative, like suspension of driving privileges for a first-offense refusal, or criminal. They are separate from and independent of the DUI charges. Even if a driver is not convicted of the DUI, the refusal penalties apply.
Range of Penalties for First DUI Conviction
As mentioned above, a first conviction DUI can be a simple case of failing a breathalyzer after a traffic stop. At the other end of the range, an individual with a clean driving record can drink or drug too much and cause an accident in which people are severely injured or even killed. It will come as no surprise that the penalties for a DUI also become more serious with aggravating circumstances.
The range of fines for a simple first DUI without aggravating factors is $500 to $1,000. If the driver's blood alcohol level is 0.15 percent or above, or if a minor was a passenger in the vehicle, the maximum fine increases to $2,000. If the person's impaired driving causes another person serious injury, the fine can be $5,000, and if the driver's DUI causes death, the fine can be $10,000.
Penalties Increase as Severity of Crime Increases
The range of an imprisonment/probation period also increases as the severity of the crime increases. A simple first DUI without aggravating factors can carry imprisonment of up to six months in jail and probation of up to one year, but the total of both jail and probation cannot exceed one year. If the driver's BAL was elevated or if there was a minor in the car, the imprisonment period can be nine months.
For accidents involving property damage, the jail time can be one year, while accidents causing serious injury can carry a prison term of five years. If a DUI driver causes a death, even if it is a first-time DUI, conviction can bring a prison term of up to 30 years.
The period of time that the driver will lose their license ranges from a maximum of one year for a simple DUI to a permanent license revocation for causing a death. In some cases, the driver may qualify for a hardship license to allow travel to and from work, college or required medical treatment. The court will condition the hardship license on use of an ignition interlock device (IID), a type of breathalyzer that attaches to the ignition of the vehicle and allows the car to start only if the driver's BAL shows no alcohol use.
Probation and Driver Education
All DUI offenders are ordered to complete a term of monthly reporting probation and enroll in DUI school, a substance abuse course. The court may also order that the driver serve part of their imprisonment time at a residential alcoholism or drug abuse treatment program.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.