Paying the price for driving drunk
Special to Florida Weekly

DUI is one misdemeanor under Florida law that truly means business, both in the sense of being taken seriously and the revenue it generates for everyone but the person who was charged and convicted.

While the costs spelled out in Florida law put the price tag at between $500 and $1,000, those figures are just a fraction of the final toll once attorney fees, DUI classes, bail, vehicle towing, insurance hikes and a host of other consequential costs are thrown in.

And those don’t even begin to cover the emotional toll of being dragged through the legal system and the court of public opinion by the scruff of your neck for everyone to see, possible jail time, attending DUI school, performing 50 hours of community service, having your driver license revoked and possibly losing your job.

All told, the cost of a DUI conviction could be as high as $10,000.

Brevard County receives about 2,500 new DUI cases a year, said Michele Perlman, an assistant state attorney who is the misdemeanor division chief for Brevard.

Ms. Perlman has been prosecuting DUI cases for more than 20 years. While the county court caseload precludes her from touching all DUI cases, she generally gets involved in the more serious ones involving victims or motions that affect all of the cases as a group.

She supervises 19 attorneys who handle DUI cases, which are treated as a priority misdemeanor.

“We are vigorously prosecuting DUIs,” Ms. Perlman said. “We are pushing the primary charge at every opportunity. We only negotiate an amended charge when there is a constitutional or evidentiary problem with our case.

“We pursue jail time, vehicle immobilization and impoundment, victim awareness programs, payment of cost of investigation and prosecution in addition to the statutory required penalties, which are quite significant to begin with.”

Ms. Perlman said prosecutors have about a 95 percent conviction rate, which includes pleas to DUI and pleas to amended charge of reckless driving with alcohol or drug involvement.

Unfortunately for offenders, DUIs are not limited to misdemeanors. A conviction of a third DUI within 10 years of a prior conviction is a thirddegree felony, as is a fourth conviction regardless of any prior convictions. Also, a DUI involving serious bodily injury to any person, including the driver, is a third-degree felony.

In Brevard, felony DUI resulted in 104 convictions in 2009, 83 in 2010 and 77 in 2011, according to statistics from the state attorney’s office.

The good news: While overall, there were 1,072 DUI convictions in 2010 in Brevard County, which is the most recent year for which statistics are available from the state Department of Motor Vehicles, and we were one of 11 counties in Florida with 1,000 convictions or more, the Brevard rate actually represented a 32 percent decline from 2009, which saw 1,565 convictions. And the 2009 number represented a 12 percent drop from 2008, when 1,774 convictions were logged in Brevard.

Hillsborough County led Florida in convictions in 2010 with 3,256, according to DMV figures. Statewide in 2010, the number of convictions was 30,933, down from 36,872 in 2009 and 38,664 in 2008.

And that’s just for the criminal side of things. Those charged with a DUI also face civil or administrative proceedings over the suspension of their driver license that are separate from the criminal case in state court. And a driver could win her or his case in county court, but still lose on the civil side.

Yet despite the severe penalties, DUI arrests continue to be made.

“It doesn’t surprise me because DUI is the type of criminal offense that can be committed by anyone,” Ms. Perlman said.

“Despite a lot of public awareness, DUI is a crime that happens. It is daunting to see the numbers sometimes. But we just look at each case individually and do the best we can to make an impression on the defendant, and to seek both punishment and rehabilitative components to our sentencing recommendations.”

After all, DUI can, and does, affect many people.

“I know many people who have been touched by a DUI, friends and family,” Ms. Perlman said. “People who have been arrested, people who have been victimized, people who have lost members of their family.

“It increases my resolve to be aggressive in DUI prosecution. I’ve always felt that way. But (it) doesn’t affect my ability to be impartial and prosecute cases based on the evidence.”

Dealing with the consequences

Under Florida law, a driver can be charged with a DUI if his or her blood-alcohol content is found to be .08 percent or higher, or if an officer concludes the driver has impairment of normal faculties.

Once that happens, a Pandora’s box of indignities is opened upon the person charged, and if convicted of a DUI, the stain remains on the driver’s Florida record for 75 years.

That’s why defending DUI cases can be a lucrative line of work for attorneys.

Melbourne attorney Steven Casanova is among the leading DUI litigators in Brevard County, is a member of National College of DUI Attorneys and a lifetime member of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

He’s been defending DUI cases involving alcohol and controlled substances since 1999.

Although he says rarely loses a DUI case when he goes to trial, Mr. Casanova’s skill at defending the arrestees has made the police and state attorney’s office better at prosecuting them.

In short, police are aggressive in making DUI arrests, and the social climate nationally and in Brevard County is not sympathetic to DUI defendants.

“This is serious stuff,” Mr. Casanova said. “I think you are looking at stuff like MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). I think there’s also kind of a tilt going on in this country for a more conservative kind of thinking.

“Their (state attorney’s) agenda is a lot tougher than it used to be, and I think it is a little strong-handed for people, particularly, who are firsttime offenders.”

And when those offenders find themselves in front of a judge or a jury, the costs can be significant.

“The jury pools that we have in Brevard County are pretty conservative,” Mr. Casanova said.

As a result, ensuring defendants that legal representation gives them a good chance to win a case is not cheap, costing $5,000 to $10,000, Mr. Casanova said.

His clients encompass a wide range of people. “I’ve represented doctors, senior scientists, down to the roofer,” Mr. Casanova said.

“It’s one of those things, it’s kind of emblematic of our society. It is an accepted norm of society to have a drink and a glass of wine with dinner and get in your car and drive. That mindset is what the state attorney’s office is trying to change and is so much against.

“When I do jury trials, I oftentimes tell people it’s not against the law to drink and drive, but it is against the law to drink and drive if you are impaired. The question becomes how do you know when you are impaired?”

That’s a question that must be faced by every person who chooses to get behind the wheel after having a drink … or two … or more.

“DUI is one of those crimes committed by many people with no other criminal history, with no other involvement in the criminal justice system who make a bad choice, who exercise poor judgment and who think they’re fine to drive when they’re really not,” Ms. Perlman said.

“It’s not the same as the specific intent, the decision to go out and commit a certain type of crime. It’s something that happens every day, and it applies across the board. There is no real distinguishing factor or feature of what my defendant will look like. We have all ages, all sexes, all types of people, all backgrounds, all occupations.

“It’s one of those offenses that I think is based on poor choices.”

And often, Mr. Casanova said, those poor choices are transcending alcohol use, bridging into the use of controlled substances.

But in the end, the intoxicant is immaterial. Impairment is impairment, and the law is the law.

And the penalties and the cost can be devastating. ¦

— Mark DeCotis can be reached at

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.

The DUI law

Under Florida law, those convicted of a first DUI 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 also is a conviction with staying power: It remains on a Florida driver’s record for 75 years.

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2012-05-17 digital edition

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