In Florida, DUI is a crime. Everyone knows that. But it is important to understand what exactly that means. DUI means driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The key word, for the purposes of this post, is “influence”. This is something that criminal defense lawyers experienced in DUI cases will stress to prosecutors, judges and juries in cases where a DUI defendant had been drinking but was not impaired. It is not a DUI crime in Florida to drink and then drive. It is not a good idea of course, and we would recommend utilizing one of the many other options available today to people who have had anything to drink and then want to go somewhere, but the crime of DUI is not drinking and driving. It is drinking (or using any sort of drug that could cause impairment) enough to cause impairment and then driving. Impairment is a subjective term, of course. Unfortunately, it is decided by the police officer, at least initially, and many of them draw their conclusions first and look for evidence second.
In any case, if a police officer stops a driver and smells alcohol or determines that the driver has been drinking some other way, that is not sufficient for a DUI arrest. One, smelling like alcohol does not necessarily mean the driver’s drinking was recent. If the person was at a bar, it may not mean the driver had been drinking at all. But most importantly, if the driver smells like alcohol, it might mean he/she had been drinking, but it does not mean he/she is impaired. It is certainly a relevant factor, but the police officer needs actual evidence of impairment to proceed with a DUI investigation. Examples of such evidence would be an erratic driving pattern, slurred speech, bloodshot eyes, difficulty understanding and answering questions, etc. Of course, a police officer looking to make a DUI arrest can believe he/she observes these signs and document them even if they are questionable or nonexistent. It is all subjective, after all, but the officer needs to articulate these facts to proceed with a proper DUI case.
In a DUI case just south of Jacksonville, Florida, a police officer stopped the driver for speeding and making a quick lane change to pass another vehicle. At the vehicle, the officer said the driver was responding slowly and speaking in a thick tongued manner (it’s not clear what this means, but police officers put this in their DUI reports all of the time). He also said he smelled an odor of alcohol. With this information, he proceeded with a DUI investigation and ultimately a DUI arrest.
The criminal defense lawyer filed a motion to suppress all of the evidence obtained once the police officer started the DUI investigation based on the argument that the police officer did not have reasonable suspicion to believe the driver was impaired. Cases like this are a judgment call, from the police officer’s decision to investigate and arrest to the prosecutor’s decision to file charges to the judge’s decision whether the case can go forward. In this case, the judge decided there was insufficient evidence of impairment. Speeding and acting cautiously or nervously when a police officer stops a driver do not indicate impairment. A particular way of talking does not mean much when the police officer does not know how the driver normally speaks. And odor of alcohol coming from the vehicle might mean the driver had been drinking but does not mean she was impaired. Different judges could definitely go either way on this, but in this case, the judge sided with the defendant, and the DUI case was thrown out. The important point is remembering that evidence that a person had been drinking does not necessarily mean the person has committed a DUI in Florida.