I-TEAM: Crashes caused by drugged drivers skyrocket in Tampa Bay

Up 47 percent in the past three years
Posted at 7:03 PM, Oct 08, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-09 03:59:30-04

TAMPA, Fla. — Tampa Bay leads the state with the most crashes caused by drugged drivers, and an I-team review found many of those dangerous collisions are happening during daylight hours.

A review by Investigator Paul LaGrone found:

  • Deadly crashes caused by drivers high on drugs have skyrocketed in Tampa Bay – up 47 percent in the past three years.
  • The Tampa Bay leads the state with the most confirmed crashes caused by drugged drivers with 465 since 2014. By comparison, Orlando reported 232 and Miami reported 161 drugged driving crashes.
  • Alarmingly, 42 percent of all drug-involved crashes are happening during daylight hours.

Authorities report the problem is getting worse. Tampa Bay has seen a 32 percent increase in drugged driving collisions since 2014.

ABC Action News obtained hours of dash camera videos showing suspected drugged drivers being pulled over by the Florida Highway Patrol.

One of them shows a young woman arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence of drugs on US 19 in Clearwater after midnight.

"I need to sleep is what I need to do," she said on the dash camera video as she’s handcuffed in the back of the patrol car, adding, "Yeah, I could tell that I was swerving and I even said it to him."

She also told the Florida Highway Patrol Trooper she's a recovering addict and goes to a methadone clinic to wean herself off of drugs. She said she's done nothing wrong.

The videos also show drivers suspected of smoking marijuana and those suspected of being on something much stronger.

"I usually smoke about $20 of weed a day," one driver said as he’s being hauled off to jail after being arrested on charges of being under the influence of drugs behind the wheel.

He told the officer, "You want me mellow not crazy, when I'm crazy I go to jail."

Another driver shouted, "I just want to die,” from the backseat of a Highway Patrol Trooper’s cruiser.

Then he appears to beg the Trooper to end his life, saying, "Can you roll the car over my head? Kill me"

Sgt. Steve Gaskins with the Florida Highway Patrol told the I-team that drugged drivers are a growing problem on Florida’s roads.

”Unfortunately as we have more drivers enter Florida roadways, we are seeing more motorists that are having drugged impaired problems,” said Gaskins.

But the I-team found some drivers charged with being under the influence of drugs never get prosecuted and even get their licenses back.

Jim Swope said he was a victim of one of those drugged drivers. He suffered two spinal fractures after being hit head-on by a wrong way driver on US 19 at 7:30 a.m.

"He was headed straight for me," said Swope. "There's no excuse. It's like a loaded gun.”

FHP arrested the driver who hit Swope on suspicion of being under the influence of drugs. According to the arrest report, the driver appeared dazed, his eyes glassy and bloodshot, his speech slow and mumbled and his body shaking with tremors. He was charged with three counts of DUI.

But all of those charges were dropped. In fact, the driver was never prosecuted. The Pasco County State Attorney's office told the I-team they couldn't prove the driver was on drugs because he refused to take a drug test.

Attorney Peter Sartes, who has both defended and sued drivers on drugs, said it's difficult to convict drugged drivers in Florida because unlike alcohol, there are no set limits that tell drivers when they've had too much.

And many suspected of drugged driving refuse to take a blood test

“The reasonable doubt is there is no smell. There is no data.  It is purely a case of circumstance,” said Sartes

There's also no mandatory minimum sentence for first time DUI offenders in Florida.

And buried in the fine print of every DUI ticket is a loophole that actually lets drivers who were just arrested continue to drive.

At the bottom of the traffic citation – under the box labeled "Eligible for Permit" – there is a box an officer can check so that the DUI citation itself serves as a temporary driver's license for 10 days.

The man who hit Jim Swope was allowed to drive for a week and a half after his DUI arrest.

"Somebody is letting these people off easy. I think they ought to get slammed first offense mandatory prison. You got to come down hard on these people or they'll be right back," he says.

Attorney’s tell ABC Action News that since Florida is the “Pill Mill” capital of the country it’s no surprise there are more drugged drivers out there on the roads with you.

The I-team also looked up the arrest report for the driver who was begging the trooper to kill him and found he was also allowed to drive for 10 days after his arrest.