Drug-Related DUIs: How Law Enforcement Proves Impairment

Most people associate DUIs with the excessive use of alcohol and an elevated blood alcohol content (BAC). But Florida law criminalizes driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, whether they are legally prescribed medications, illegal drugs, or over-the-counter cold and flu medicine.  


Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law in Tampa, believes every Florida driver should understand the law related to drug-based DUI to ensure they don’t drive after taking prescription drugs that will impair their ability to drive safely.  


Unless they are aware of the risks and possible consequences, people tend to presume that they are immune from prosecution if the drugs were prescribed by a doctor. The law will treat them just as harshly as any drunk driver. That’s why getting the most experienced drug-related DUI defense lawyer is essential. 


Drug-Related DUI Law in Florida 


In Florida, a person can be convicted of DUI if they are in actual physical control of a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a chemical substance to the extent that their normal faculties are impaired. (In alcohol cases, a chemical breath or blood test showing a blood alcohol content of 0.08 or above violates the DUI law. But we will focus on drugs in this blog post.) 


Are Drug DUI Penalties the Same as Alcohol DUI? Yes. 


The law does not distinguish between drugs or alcohol when someone drives while under the influence of either substance. If the state can prove the elements of a DUI offense beyond a reasonable doubt, the penalties for a first offense in Florida include the following: 


  • 1st Offense — Up to 6 months in jail, 1-year probation, $500 – $1,000 fine, 

license suspension for 180 days minimum, vehicle impound 10 days, 50 hours of community service, complete DUI school, substance abuse eval. and treatment 

  • 2nd Offense (in 5 years) — Min. 10 days to 9 mos. in jail, up to $2,000 fine, and 5-year license 

suspension, mandatory ignition interlock device (IID) for one year, DUI school, substance abuse eval. and treatment 


Penalties for a third offense are more severe, with a fourth offense becoming a 3rd-degree felony punishable by up to 5 years in state prison and permanent revocation of the driver’s license. 


How Do Florida Police Detect Drugs in an Impaired Driver? 


Police patrol their precincts actively looking for signs of trouble, including drivers whose behavior violates the law or appears to present a threat to the public. Typical signs that attract police attention include weaving within a lane or between lanes, driving aggressively, driving unreasonably slow, late turns or wide turns, hesitance when choosing a route at an intersection, being stopped for a prolonged time in traffic, or stopping on the side of the road.  


When police approach the driver, they look for the usual signs of alcohol intoxication; a strong odor of alcohol, slurred speech, bloodshot watery eyes, confusion, unresponsive answers to questions, lack of coordination, inability to locate documents, etc.  


When Alcohol Is Not the Cause of Driver Impairment — Police initially conduct the same investigation in drug DUI cases as they do in alcohol-involved DUIs. But the roadside Standardized Field Sobriety Tests (SFSTs) were designed to detect physical signs and symptoms of alcohol intoxication, not drugs. But sometimes, the police observe the suspect perform the field sobriety tests better than expected but still display signs of impairment.  


Some of the characteristics police look for in a suspected drugged driver are lethargy, pupil dilation, slurred speech, and providing nonresponsive answers to the officer’s questions. The arresting officer may administer some “modified” field sobriety tests that are geared toward detecting drug use instead of alcohol, including the horizontal and vertical nystagmus test (unsteady eye movement).  


Another test could be the Modified Romberg Test, a pseudo-neurological test in which the test subject stands with legs together, closes their eyes, tilts their head back slightly, and alerts the officer when they think 30 seconds has elapsed. The real Romberg test is used by neurologists to test brain stem function, but the police version is an unvalidated, made-up exercise that does not follow the protocols required to assess the person’s performance. 


When the officer thinks they have probable cause to arrest a driver for DUI, they transport the driver to the station for a breathalyzer test. If the driver’s breath/blood alcohol content (BAC) reading is within normal limits, but signs of impairment persist, an officer with special training as a “drug recognition expert” (DRE) will conduct a 12-step drug identification evaluation of the driver. 


Drug Recognition Expert Procedure 


Certified drug recognition experts are trained to examine a person’s vital signs, pupil reactivity, balance, and muscle tone. They also interview the arresting officer and the suspect to gather as many facts as possible to find features of the suspect’s appearance, behavior, and admissions that they can use against them in a drug DUI prosecution. Blood or urine may also be collected and tested.  


How the Prosecutor Uses the Evidence in a Florida Drug-Related DUI  


 The prosecutor must begin the proof by putting the legal foundation for the traffic stop into evidence. Then they will use the arresting officer’s observations of the driver’s demeanor, unusual behavior, and admissions, if any, to justify the officer’s further investigation into possible drugged driving.  


The breathalyzer’s low reading, along with the driver’s continued display of impaired behavior, will allow the DRE officer to put into evidence their training and certification as drug recognition experts. That officer will then report the results of their examination of the driver; fast pulse, nonreactive pupils, or fixed and dilated pupils, nystagmus, tense muscle tone, etc. 


See More > How Long Do Police Have to File Drug Charges in Florida?  


Defenses to Drug-Related DUI Evidence 


Skilled DUI defense lawyers with experience in drug-related DUI cases have several effective strategies to defeat an allegation of drugged driving. First, they challenge the grounds for the original traffic stop, question the arresting officer’s reported observations of the driver during the initial personal interaction, and dispute the existence of probable cause to arrest the driver. 


The best DUI defense attorneys will present reasonable, innocent alternative explanations for the driver’s reported behavior. The lethargy or inattention may be attributable to fatigue, allergies, illness, diabetic ketoacidosis, injury, illness, or anxiety. Any corroborating evidence of these factors could easily create doubt in the judge’s or jury’s minds.  


If you need skilled and experienced drug-related DUI defense lawyers in Hillsborough County or Pinellas County, call Stechschulte Nell, Attorneys at Law at 813-280-1244, for effective representation. 

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