Breath device deters repeat DUI offenders
By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
It looks like a cell phone and fits in the palm of your hand. But blow into it drunk and your car won't leave the curb.
Although the law has allowed Florida judges to order such "ignition interlocks" installed in the cars of convicted drunken drivers since 1990, few have done so.
Only a handful of companies make them. And some judges doubted the dependability of early models, which could misread cigarette smoke -- or spicy food -- as alcohol.
But a new measure, passed by the Florida Legislature and awaiting the governor's signature, will force drivers with a second DUI conviction to pay for ignition interlocks for a year, provided the offender qualifies for a license.
The law, if signed, will go into effect in July 2003.
"If we're not going to be able to stop them from drinking, we're going to stop them from driving," said Rep. David Simmons, R-Longwood, who sponsored the bill and calls it "a monumental shift in the way we deal with drunk drivers."
The bill also makes a third DUI conviction a felony, as opposed to the fourth, and makes it a misdemeanor to refuse a breath test if your license has been suspended for doing so before.
Simmons said support from state prosecutors, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the beer industry helped push the measure through. The only real opposition, he said, came from defense attorneys who considered it too harsh.
Of the 1,000 alcohol-related deaths in Florida each year, Simmons said, a majority involve repeat offenders.
"For every DUI conviction we get," he said, "that person has already driven drunk 250 to 1,000 times without being caught."
Simmons said there are only six manufacturers of the ignition interlock device, which resembles a cell phone with a protruding blow-tube. None of them is in Florida.
Victor Pellegrino, one of Tampa's premier DUI attorneys, called the law "good in spirit" but nettlesome in practice.
"I think the Legislature created a can of worms with this interlock device," he said. "I don't see how people are going to be able to afford it. Even if they can afford it, those bent on violating the terms of their probation are going to go ahead and drive someone else's car."
Tampa defense attorney W. F. "Casey" Ebsary Jr., who also handles DUI cases, is more optimistic. "I think it will keep people out of trouble," he said.
William Overton, a Pinellas County judge who handles traffic cases, said the interlocks were used in Pinellas several years ago but were discontinued because of technical difficulties and a shortage of providers.
Industry officials estimate there are about 60,000 interlocks in use across the country, about half of them made by the LifeSafer company of Cincinnati. The greatest concentration is in Texas, where they are mandatory for repeat offenders.
In an attempt to outsmart the devices, people have resorted to inflating balloons before they imbibe and keeping them handy in the car. David Nico of Interstate Interlok in Pacific Grove, Calif., who intends to start a service center in Florida to cope with the anticipated demand, said innovations of recent years -- such as requiring an offender to hum while giving the breath of air -- have made cheating harder.
"We've come a long way from the early days," Nico said, noting that there is still nothing to prevent a drunken driver's sober friend from blowing into the tube, though he doubts many sober people would want to do that.
In interlock-equipped cars, Nico said, drivers must pass further breath tests on the road or trigger the car's lights and horn, attracting police.
Nico said he rents the devices to offenders for $65 a month and charges no installation fee.
"If they walk in the door with $65 they're on the program," he said, adding that, per day, "it's less than a pack of cigarettes."
A handful of lawyers and judges who work in the Tampa legal community could not recall any local cases in which the interlock device was used.
Joelle Ann Ober, one of the judges who presides over the traffic docket at the Hillsborough County courthouse, which saw 5,390 DUI cases in 2001, said the device might deter repeat offenders.
"I don't think the majority of people get a big enough scare that I'm comfortable I'm not going to see them again," Ober said.
-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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