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Supreme Court Hears DUI Arguments

The Florida Supreme Court on Thursday was asked again to define state DUI laws as it continues to weigh the rights of an individual against the public benefit of keeping impaired drivers off the road.

In the latest challenge of laws enacted to make roadways safer, the state’s highest court was asked what rights motorists can reasonably expect to give up while being protected from unlawful arrests that could result in the suspension of their licenses.

DUI laws have provided legal and legislative fodder for years as lawmakers have debate such issues as due process, racial profiling and the concept that individuals are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Now, further tweaking may be needed.

Lawmakers in 2006 made it easier for police to suspend a license for failure to take a sobriety test in one chapter of Florida law. They did not, however, change another chapter, which continues to require a more restrictive standard before a license can be suspended for failing to submit to a sobriety test.

The Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles, the state agency charged with enforcing traffic laws, says motorists have given their implied consent to turn over their licenses if they refuse to take breath, blood or urine tests when pulled over by law enforcement officers.

“The Legislature has said the public safety interest to keep drunks off the road outweighs the privilege of having a license for a year,” said Doug Sunshine, an attorney representing the highway agency. “For this court to see otherwise would be an abrogation of the Legislature’s authority.”

The courts, however, aren’t all on the same page.

In one case, the Second District Court of Appeal in Lakeland upheld the state’s right to invoke the suspension regardless of whether the driver was later charged with a DUI.

In Tallahassee, the First District Court of Appeal made a conflicting ruling in a separate case, saying the suspensions are valid only if a lawful arrest is eventually made. That is, if the person was cleared, or the arrest wasn’t lawful to begin with, they shouldn’t have been required to surrender their license for not having taken a test to prove their innocence.

From their questions Thursday, a few of the Supreme Court justices echoed the concerns of defense attorneys, who argued that regardless of lawmakers’ intentions, at least one Florida law still requires that an arrest be lawful before a suspension can stick.

And if lawmakers want to fix that, they’ll have to do that in the chambers of the Legislature, not the courts.

“For you to stand there and say we’re abrogating the Legislature is not factual at all,” Justice Fred Lewis said to Sunshine. “What we’re saying is, that maybe you have to read statutes together when there are holes in them. That is a well-recognized principal of law, is it not?”

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