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DUI breath tester takes away the keys

A court-ordered device that tests drivers for alcohol is being used to stop repeat DUI offenses.

Published March 20, 2004

TAMPA - The middle-aged couple drove up in a Ford Taurus. He held papers in his hands. She clutched her purse.

They walked up to the non-descript warehouse in the industrial park complex, with its heavily tinted windows, and went inside. They were ushered to a back room and shown a 20-minute video.

Then they were given a lecture on how to use a new addition to the highway safety landscape in Florida: a cell-phone sized device that is supposed to stop a person from driving drunk.

Later, workers installed the contraption into the Taurus and went over the logistics again.

You must blow into the mouthpiece and hum. If you've been drinking, even at a level below the legal limit at which impairment is assumed, your car won't start.

"We think it's working well," said Robert Sanchez, spokesman for the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. "It's working as intended."

Throughout Florida, people convicted of drunken driving are getting court-ordered ignition interlocks installed in their cars.

Though the law went into effect almost two years ago, the devices only became available Feb. 1. At offices like the one in Tampa, installers are working their way through a backlog of cases.

Florida is "on the tail end of this," said Frank Russo, a Pinellas attorney who specializes in DUI law. "This is not something new."

In fact, Florida is the 42nd state to get ignition interlock legislation, Russo said. The delay in implementation was due to a legal battle between the companies that make the devices.

The companies ended up dividing the contract with the state in half. LifeSafer Interlock won the contract for the northern half of the state, including Citrus and Hernando counties. Alcohol Countermeasure Systems Corp. will provide interlocks to the southern half of the state, including Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties.

Under the law, a first-time DUI offender whose blood alcohol was 0.20 or above the legal limit of 0.08, or who had a child in the car at the time of the offense, must have the device installed in his car for up to six months. For drivers with two DUI convictions, interlocks are required for one year; for those with three DUI convictions, for two years.

Interlocks will not let the car start if a breath sample blown inside the device's tube detects a blood alcohol level higher than 0.05 percent, which is lower than that legal limit for driving.

There are those who would try to outsmart the system. For instance, people have been known to blow into a balloon before drinking in order to use that air as their breath sample later on. But the device requires that a driver hum at the same time as they blow into it.

And anyone caught giving a breath sample for someone else faces a civil infraction, like a non-moving traffic violation.

Obviously, the system isn't foolproof. It only applies to the drunken driver's car - not any other car that person may drive.

For a small number of drivers, the device is proving problematic. Ed Lewandowski of Clearwater, for instance, is physically unable to blow into it because his voice box was removed two years ago in a cancer operation.

Lewandowski, 54, pleaded no contest to his first DUI in early March. His blood-alcohol level measured 0.21 in a blood test, so he must, by law, get an interlock device.

But since he can't blow into it, state license officials have refused to grant him a hardship license.

"They're just jerking me around," Lewandowski said. "Nobody wants to accommodate someone who is disabled."

Attorney John Trevena, who represents Lewandowski, said his client's case is a reflection of how little thought lawmakers put into the law.

"This shows the absurd results that can occur when legislation is pushed through quickly without giving thought to the consequences," Trevena said. "Lawmakers pandered to the public's concern about DUI without thinking about people with physical disabilities."

Sanchez said the department is trying to find a way to accommodate people like Lewandowski. But he could not say if the department would eventually grant Lewandowski his hardship license.

There's an added sting to having to blow into a device before you can start your car: cost. Drivers must pay about $75 to get the device, plus maintenance fees of about $65 a month.

Statewide, about 20,000 drivers convicted of DUI since July 1, 2002, are required to get the device. If not, they cannot renew their driver's license.

But because the ignition interlock is not a condition of probation, drivers can not be punished for violating probation if they don't get it installed. However, it is a necessary prerequisite for drivers to get their licenses reinstated, said Russo, the lawyer.

Hillsborough County Judge Joelle Ober has been calling for interlocks since the law went into effect. She estimates she ordered it for about 20 people in the first few weeks of February.

She sees cost as a possible hardship for some defendants. But she is cautiously optimistic.

"Certainly, judges want to prevent drinking and driving . . . " Ober said. "It's kind of a little too soon to tell (if interlocks will be successful.) It sounds like a good prevention tool."

- Times staff writer William R. Levesque contributed to this report.

[Last modified March 20, 2004, 01:20:34]

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