In Hernando County, some drunken drivers who have been held in jail only until they sober up could face tougher penalties.
By JAMIE MALERNEE
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 2, 2001
More than 200 drunken drivers face heavier sanctions after a court has overturned a judge's decision to sentence them to no more than eight hours in jail.
For 1 1/2 years, Hernando County Judge Peyton Hyslop sentenced DUI offenders to no more jail time than however long it took them to sober up when they were first arrested.
The ruling irked police, but Hyslop reasoned that any further sentence would be double jeopardy -- otherwise known as illegally punishing someone twice for the same offense.
But an appeals court reversed that decision in late April, ruling that the temporary detention of an impaired driver is not punishment. Instead, the court said it is protection for both the safety of the driver and others on the road.
"The state has an overwhelming interest in the protection of members of the community from the dangers presented by the too-early release of DUI arrestees," wrote Circuit Judge W. Swigert.
Now, the public defender's office is asking the 5th District Court of Appeal to review that decision. If the court agrees to hear the case and also agrees with Hyslop's original ruling, the short sentences would stand.
But if the court refuses to hear the case, or hears it and agrees with the circuit court, things will get more complicated.
Hyslop, known for his controversial rulings, has already told prosecutors that he will refuse to re-sentence any of the DUI offenders. Why? That also constitutes double jeopardy, he says.
Hyslop bases his opinion on a 1998 case where a drug offender was mistakenly given a light sentence and, when the mistake was realized, the man was given to more time. On appeal, the 4th District Court of Appeal ruled that the re-sentencing was illegal.
"When a sentencing has already been served, even if it is an illegal sentence, the court lacks jurisdiction and would violate the Double Jeopardy Clause by resentencing," the court wrote.
Hyslop says the offenders he sentenced have also already served their sentences and, therefore, handing them more jail time would also be illegal.
But prosecutors disagree. Assistant State Attorney Bill Catto says the 1998 case does not apply because the mistaken sentence in that case was merely a paperwork mix-up that was agreed upon by the state. In Hyslop's DUI cases, Catto said, the state has been "battling" Hyslop every step of the way on an issue of law.
"He's wrong. The law, to me, is clear as a bell," Catto said, regarding the detention of accused drunk drivers. "Our goal is to have these cases brought back for re-sentencing."
If Hyslop officially denies Catto's re-sentencing motion in court, Catto says he will most likely appeal it. The resulting paperwork would further extend the limbo in which the more than 200 DUI cases are.