Last year my life was forever changed. I was arrested for DUI as I was driving home from a beer festival. As a long-time beer blogger and advocate of knowing when to say when, this was devastating. Over the next few weeks, I will be telling my story in hopes that my experience will resonate with my readers and deter them from taking any chances when their ability to drive after having a few beers may be impaired.
To read this series from the beginning, click here.
In the state of Florida, the Florida Department of Highway and Motor Safety (FDHMS) is the ultimate authority of who can and cannot drive. They have the right to revoke or suspend the license of any driver for a variety of reasons. They do not require a decree from a judge to levy these punishments and are completely separate from the judicial process. For a person who is arrested for DUI, the FDHMS is more likely than not apt to suspend the driver’s license until certain requirements are met.
A I sat in the offices of my lawyer, Jason Porter, he explained to me that within the next week or so I would be notified of a hearing that will be held by the FDHMS to review the evidence against me and decide whether my license would be suspended. He told me that I did not need to appear at the hearing, but that he would appear on my behalf. At the hearing the police officers involved in the investigation leading to my arrest would be called to testify and that he would have the opportunity to question them. The information gained during this hearing and questioning would help my defense in the court case, but no matter what the outcome of the court case I would be bound by any suspension levied by the FDHMS.
True to my lawyer’s guidance, a few days later a letter appeared in my mail box informing me of the date and location of my FDHMS hearing. I passed the information on to my lawyer and waited to hear from him on the day of the hearing.
Time ticked by slowly that day. As I tried to concentrate on my work my eyes kept sneaking a peek at the clock in the lower right corner of my computer screen. The hearing was scheduled for 9:00 a.m. and the clock seemed to have slowed, grudgingly giving up each minute like a miser tentatively paying a menial worker. When the clock crept past 11:30 a.m. I felt I had aged a year. When the phone finally rang at a few minutes past noon, I gingerly answered it and braced for the news.
“Well,” my lawyer began, immediately causing my heart to sink. “We were not able to keep them from suspending your license. But, it is not the end of the world. You can still get a hardship license.”
A hardship license allows a driver to drive to and from work, school, the doctor, the grocery store or church. It does not allow the holder to drive anywhere for pleasures such as a movie, a friend’s house or, heaven forbid a bar. But, in order to obtain this restricted license, a driver must complete a number of tasks. For a first offense such as mine, those tasks include: completion of DUI school and making an application to the department for hearing for possible hardship reinstatement. But, before a driver is allowed to take the DUI class, they must first go to the Northeast Florida Safety Council (NFSC), pay a fee and complete a Driver Risk Inventory questionnaire designed to determine if the driver is likely to repeat the behavior that got their license suspended in the first place.
I made an appointment to meet with the NFSC and arrived on the date and at the time designated. The man behind the glass partition had the demeanor and expression of many government workers – he would get to me when he was good and ready and not a moment before. I sat at the window – a chair was thoughtfully supplied – as he shuffled papers for what must have been ten minutes and then typed a few characters into his computer. After nearly 20 minutes of silence he finally shoved a sheaf of papers through the slot at the bottom of the divider and told me to sign at the marked spots. I was then told the cost, including the Driver Risk Inventory, is $260.
The class is a two-day, all-weekend affair and the rules are beyond strict. If you are late, you will be denied admission and will have to reschedule your class at an additional cost of $40. If at any time during the class the instructor does not think you are participating, you can be dismissed and you must retake the class at, you guessed it, an additional cost. During the class, you will be subjected to an outrageous amount of data regarding driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. While the information is good, the manner in which it is delivered – think the monotone teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – makes it nearly impossible to stay awake.
None-the-less, there are important points emphasized in the course. For instance, according to government data, during the core hours of 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m., more than 65% of speeders are DUI. That is an astounding number! Another statistic states that more than 50% of all DUI arrests occur during those same core hours. And perhaps the most startling statistic is that there are more than 16,000 deaths attributed to DUI annually.
DUIs come with great cost not only to you personally in the form fees, fines and lost time, they also cost our society as a whole. According to the information presented during the class, the cost of alcohol abuse topped $379 billion in 2008. Some of the costs included in that number include:
- $162 billion to lost productivity
- $18 billion in healthcare costs
- $16 billion in alcohol treatment
- $17 billion in increased insurance costs
- $29 billion in costs associated with crimes committed while under the influence of alcohol
- $23 billion in adverse medical problems associated with alcohol abuse
The overall effect of the class is to bring into sharp focus the true cost of impaired driving in the United States. As a deterrent to repeated offence, it seems to be an effective tool. As an exciting way to spend a weekend, it fails miserably and rightly so.
After the class is completed, all students must report to the NFSC for a risk assessment. This meeting I meant to determine an offender’s likelihood to re-offend. The Driver Risk Inventory that was administered on the first visit to the NFSC is used as a comparison against a long list of questions the evaluator asks. In my case, the evaluator admitted to me that he was an ex-offender himself who had three DUIs on his record. As a way to turn himself around he decided to take a position evaluating others who have made the same mistake he did. He allowed that that did not necessarily make him the most arbitrary of evaluators.
The questions were vague and required me to try to recall my drinking habits over the past 30 years. They included such questions as: Have you ever blacked out from drinking? Have you ever had a hangover? Have you ever driven while under the influence without getting caught? Have you ever experienced “lost time” while drinking? The aim of the question is to check for risks associated with repeat offenders. The result of answering these questions more often than not is that the offender will be referred to outside counselling for treatment of alcohol abuse before my hardship license would be granted.
In my case, I answered truthfully. As a young man in college I belonged to a fraternity. As a part of Greek life, there were many parties where drinking heavily was encouraged. Most took place either at our Fraternity House or within a short walk of the house. Driving was not involved. But, that did not matter. Because I answered affirmatively to having blacked out while drinking, I was immediately labeled a high risk for repeated offence – never mind that that blackout had occurred more than 30 years ago.
I was referred out to a “program” run by the Salvation Army, given a phone number of the program leader and told to make contact and attend my first meeting within two weeks. I made call after call to the leader without response. Finally, nearly two weeks after my first attempt to contact him, the leader called me back and informed me of the time commitment and costs associated with the program.
Before he would sign-off on me, I would be required to purchase a program manual for $95 and attend a minimum of 12 two-hour meetings on Saturday mornings. Each meeting also had a cost of $35. The entire program was to cost me 24 hours of my time and over $500. I balked at the cost and contacted NFSC to inquire whether I could go to one-on-one counselling with a provider covered by my health insurance. Grudgingly, they agreed and I made my first appointment.
At the first meeting, the approved counsellor went through a preliminary assessment of my personality style and risk factors. To my great relief, he was not of the opinion that I was a risk – in fact, he was of the opinion that I was a very low risk and that we would only need a few sessions to satisfy the state’s requirements. Of course, before I could be released from the counselling requirement, he would have to submit a report and there were fees associated with that, big fees.
All during this process my lawyer was working on my case. Over the course of months hearings were set, postponed, rescheduled and postponed again. There were issues with getting all the witnesses – the police officers – to court on the same day. After months of delays, a date was finally set for trial and I was called in for a meeting at my lawyer’s office.
At the meeting we reviewed the video taken by the officer during my sobriety tests and discussed strategy. Gary Schumard, the lawyer who would represent me at the trial, presented his plan of putting me on the stand as the final witness of the case. This, he said, would show the jury that I had nothing to hide and allow my natural, good-natured charm to shine. He emphasized that we would not back down from telling the truth and that he was going to call in to question the extended amount of time – over three hours — it took for the police to get me to the breathalyzer even though we were less than two blocks away from it during the entire police investigation.
The days leading up to the trial were tense. While I was confident in my innocence and Mr. Shumard’s ability to represent me, I was still nervous because the outcome of a trial can never truly be predicted. On the Monday before the trial date, I was to appear in court with my lawyer for jury selection.
Sitting in the courtroom, my back to the judge, I watched as the jury pool entered and sat in the long pews of the gallery. I watched as my name and the charges against me were read and observed several of the gathered potential jurors shot disapproving glances my way. Several showed open disgust, others merely shook their head and one showed signs of recognition.
To read the final chapter of this series, click here.
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