The Odor of Alcohol is Not a Sufficient Basis for Police to Start DUI Investigation in Florida

In Florida, many DUI investigations and arrests begin with a simple traffic stop. Sometimes the police officer suspects the driver is driving under the influence of alcohol before he/she makes the traffic stop and sometimes the police officer claims to develop suspicion after making contact with the driver. Police officers use several clues or factors to justify a DUI investigation, although as criminal defense lawyers in Florida, we see the same few “observations” show up over and over again.

Police officers are allowed to make a traffic stop based on an observation of a traffic violation, such as speeding, running a red light or driving in and out of the traffic lane while endangering other drivers. This gives the police officer authority to stop the driver and issue a citation for the traffic violation. If the police officer wants to extend the encounter to investigate for DUI (or any other crime for that matter), the police officer must be able to articulate specific indicators of criminal activity. This is, again, where we see the same comments show up over and over. For instance, the police officers will almost always testify that he smelled an odor of alcohol coming form the driver and that the driver had a flushed face and watery, bloodshot eyes and was slurring his/her speech. Those “observations” come standard with just about any DUI police report. The problem is that some of them often cannot be independently verified, even if there is a DUI video.

In any case, all of those observations must be sufficient to allow the police officer the right to hold the driver for a DUI investigation which usually includes a request for the field sobriety test and a request for a breathalyzer test after the driver is arrested for DUI and taken to the jail. Every case is different (even if the DUI police reports look very similar), and each one must be evaluated on its own merits. Almost all DUI police reports are going to mention odor of alcohol. In Florida, this alone is not a sufficient legal basis to detain a driver for a DUI investigation. Remember, the crime is driving while impaired from alcohol which is not the same as driving after having had alcohol to drink. The police officer must show not only that the driver had consumed alcohol (or drugs), but that the driver was also impaired from the alcohol (or drugs). Odor of alcohol is mere evidence of drinking which, by itself, is not illegal.

This is helpful to people who have had a couple of drinks over some period of time but are not impaired. However, the benefit is limited because very few police officers are just going to report odor of alcohol in their reports. The reports will normally include the other factors commonly mentioned. At that point, it depends on the circumstances and the evidence if a motion to suppress is filed and the police officer had a legal basis to detain the driver for a DUI investigation. After the criminal defense lawyer files that motion to suppress, a hearing is held with the police officer and the DUI video, if there is one, and the judge ultimately decides if the detention was legal or not.

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