Florida's drinking problem and the people who refuse to admit it

State leads the nation in breathalyzer refusals

It’s hard to admit when you have a problem and according to statistics provided by the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office nearly 40 percent of drivers pulled over for suspicion of driving under the influence refuse to submit to a breathalyzer.

ABC Action News reporter Michael Paluska requested statistics from Hillsborough County on the number of DUI arrests from 2014 to 2017. What we uncovered is a pattern of drivers refusing to submit to field sobriety tests. Drivers who did submit to testing had an average BAC of more than .15.

In a 2014 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Floridians, statewide, had an 82 percent refusal rate. The study profiled 34 states, crunching refusal rate numbers for 2011. New Hamsphire’s refusal rate was 72 percent followed by Montana at 46 percent.

“DUI’s are a gigantic problem in the Tampa Bay Area,” Larry Coggins the Executive Director for Mother’s Against Drunk Driving said. “Hillsborough County ranks number one in the state when it comes to alcohol related injuries and death. Far more than Dade and Broward County and our most popular counties in the south.”

If a driver refuses to adhere to Florida’s Implied Consent Law the driver gets a mandatory 12 month suspension on their drivers license. If a driver cooperates and blows over the legal .08 limit they are only given a 6 month suspension on their license. In both instances, the drivers qualify for a hardship license, per Florida law, and can be back on the road driving  within days.

According to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, there were 15,933 hardship licenses issued in calendar year 2016. Florida Statutes 322.271 lays out the reasons in which a driver may receive a hardship license. The state does not track how many licenses were granted to drivers that refused the breathalzyer.

Tampa DUI Attorney Leslie Sammis said drivers whether they cooperate with the law or not have the right to be able to drive to work. And, Sammis said drivers have the right to refuse to incriminate themselves for driving under the influence.

“The bottom line is officers have all the tools that they need,” Sammis said. A person has a right to decline to take the breath test and the right to request an independent blood test.”

A 2008 report to Congress on refusals shows that drivers might be refusing tests, “in order to avoid or reduce the chance of facing criminal sanctions.”

We rode with Hillsborough County’s DUI unit on a Friday night from 11 p.m. until 4:30 a.m. Saturday morning. On our first DUI investigation deputies responded to a suspicious vehicle at the intersection of Prevatt Street and Wiggins Road. The driver, identified as Ashley Pierre-Saint, was passed out behind the wheel along with a woman in the passenger seat. The vehicle was running and investigators said the “defendant emitted the odor of an alcoholic beverage from his breath, bloodshot watery eyes and unstable balance.” 

“He thought he was in Kissimmee,” deputy Daniel Simpkins said. “We had a hard time waking him up.”

Pierre-Saint refused to provide a breath sample. We asked Simpkins if non-compliance from drivers was something that bothered him. He didn’t hesitate in his response.

“It’s not about the arrests we make it’s about the lives we save,” Simpkins said.  

Coggins also didn’t hesitate to answer when we asked about the refusal rate.

“The number bothers me, of course, that people are refusing,” Coggins said. “People spend too much time working on the loopholes when its just so much easier and financially fiscal and community responsible not to do it to start with. We don't really care if they can get their license back, and we don't care what kind of hardship it places on them. It’s the people who are the victims and that victim can be you or me one day.”

A bill failed to pass the Senate in 2016 that would have increased the penalty to drivers that refused to provide a breath sample.

The proposed law would’ve made the penalty for a first time refusal the same as a first time conviction for DUI.

As of press time we are still waiting to get the conviction rate for DUIs in Hillsborough County. 

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