More than a million motorists in the U.S. are jailed each year on charges of driving under the influence. They face harsh penalties—from jail time to the loss of driving privileges to the loss of a job.
Then there’s the money.
The average cost of a first DUI arrest is an estimated $10,000, including court costs and legal fees, says Jonathan Blecher, a Miami criminal defense attorney who specializes in DUI law.
More important than the financial cost, of course, is the danger of driving while impaired. About one in three traffic fatalities involves an impaired driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“My first advice I give people is don’t drive drunk,” Blecher says.
So what should a motorist do when flashing blue-and-red lights appear in the rearview mirror?
While it may seem obvious, it’s important not to panic and try to flee, says Daniel R. Aaronson, a criminal defense lawyer at Benjamin, Aaronson, Edinger & Patanzo in Fort Lauderdale.
“Comply immediately and pull over,” says Aaronson.
But don’t forget the right to remain silent.
In Blecher’s opinion, “Anything you say to the officer is somehow going to be twisted against you.”
Robert “Bobby” Reiff, a Miami-based DUI criminal defense lawyer and author of “Drunk Driving & Related Vehicular Offenses,” agrees that silence is a key to a good defense.
“Don’t say anything or do anything. It will be used against you in court,” Reiff says.
It’s important to be polite as well as silent. Readily provide required paperwork—a driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance card.
All three lawyers advised against doing the roadside sobriety exercise because the pass-or-fail results are based on the officer’s opinion.
You can also refuse to take a breath test; however, under Florida law, a driver’s license is automatically suspended for one year for such a refusal. A hardship license to drive to and from work can be requested from the Florida Department of Motor Vehicles.
Most of those requests, which must be made within 10 days of an arrest, are granted in first-time DUI cases, Blecher says.
In Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, drivers arrested for the first time on DUI charges can apply to prosecution-diversion programs.
“For first offenders, the realization is that people who made one mistake should not be stigmatized for life,” Blecher says.
In Miami-Dade County, the program is called Back on Track. If a person successfully completes the nine- to 12-month program—which includes DUI school, a substance abuse evaluation and random drug and alcohol tests—the charge is reduced to reckless driving, and a finding of guilt is withheld. The effects of completing a diversion program vary among the counties that offer them.
Drivers with a prior felony conviction or prior DUI arrest aren’t allowed in the programs. Other reasons for exclusion include drivers arrested with a child in the vehicle and DUI arrests involving accidents and blood-alcohol levels above 0.25.
Diversion programs are not available everywhere. There is no DUI diversion program, for instance, in Broward County. Aaronson, whose office is in Fort Lauderdale, believes the county should implement a program.
“You can get a diversion for non-violent felonies,” he says. “Why not DUI?”