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How Florida law allows drunk drivers to get behind the wheel again and again

Posted at 4:00 PM, Nov 20, 2018
and last updated 2018-11-20 23:22:17-05

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — Loopholes in Florida's DUI laws let arrested drivers get behind the wheel again and again, the I-Team uncovered.

The findings follow a recent surge in wrong way crashes involving drunken drivers.

Investigative Reporter Paul LaGrone discovered that buried in the fine print of every DUI ticket is a clause that lets drivers who were just arrested keep driving. The DUI citation actually serves as a temporary driver's license for 10 days.

State Attorney Andrew Warren says it's the law.

"It's the due process of the system," said Warren. "What's terrifying is the idea that we have people waiting around for their trial committing the same behavior."

That's exactly what happened in Renard McGriff's case.

When McGriff drove the wrong way down the Howard Franklin Bridge at 6 a.m. on a Friday morning last month, colliding head-on with a van, putting that driver in the hospital with critical injuries, and killing himself, he already had a pending DUI case that had been dragging on for a year.

In fact, he was set to have a court hearing just two hours after the deadly crash authorities say he caused.

McGriff has a criminal record spanning nearly 30 years for everything from DUI, selling cocaine, robbery, and battery.

His most recent court case was his DUI arrest last year.

But he was still legally allowed to get behind the wheel the morning of the crash, while his case worked its way through the court system. That's because he blew a .071 on his breathalyzer test — just below the .08 legal limit.

Larry Coggins of Mothers Against Drunk Driving said most first time DUI offenders have done it before — they just haven't been caught.

"Our best chance at stopping this is before it ever happens," said Coggins. "Everyone who's arrested for DUI their first time, they committed that offense between 70 and 80 times already." 

When asked if Florida goes too easy on drunk drivers, Coggins said, "It's hard to say because every single case is different."

Jim Swope's case is different for all the wrong reasons.

"I remember the impact," said Swope. "I couldn't move. My chest hurt. I couldn't breathe without pain."

A driver going the wrong way down U.S. 19 in Pasco County hit Swope head-on, leaving him with five broken ribs, two spinal fractures, and abdominal injuries.

Swope said thought he was going to die.

"I thought this could be it," he told Investigative Reporter Paul LaGrone.

But the DUI case against the driver — who appeared dazed, eyes glassy and bloodshot according to the arrest report — fell apart after he refused to take a blood alcohol test.

That's when Pasco County prosecutors dropped the charges, citing a lack of evidence.

"The system is broken, the system failed me at that point," said Swope.

But Hillsborough County leads the state in both total DUI arrests and crashes caused by both drunk and drugged drivers.

"We have a drunk driving problem in Hillsborough County and that's why we are doing something about it," said Warren.

Warren started a new program in March that allows first time DUI offenders the chance to plea down to a reckless driving charge and get the DUI wiped off their record as long as they didn't cause a crash or injure anyone.

They have to take classes, begin recommended treatment, and they must listen to the stories of victims whose loved ones were killed by drunk drivers. Another key component of the program includes the installation of ignition interlock alcohol monitoring devices. All of this adds up to more aggressive sanctions for first time offenders.

"These are sanctions that have shown to reduce the likelihood of DUI driving," said Warren.

Warren hopes his new program cuts down on Florida's rate of repeat drunk drivers, which is the second highest in the country. But so far, the program is unproven.

When asked what he's hoping to report in two years, Warren said, "I'm hoping to tell you that we saved lives."

Warren told ABC Action News he would consider his new program a success if the number of repeat offenders goes down -- even if the total number of DUI arrests remains high.

He said if the program can save even one life it will all be worth it.