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Breath Tests Get Support In DUI Wars

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Judges may have another way to help repeat DUI offenders sober up for good.

Instead of blowing into a machine which keep their cars from starting, they may have to get their breath tested twice a day.

The proposal, approved by a House committee last week, would allow judges to place repeat DUI offenders into a new program, known elsewhere as "24/7 Sobriety," instead of having ignition interlock devices installed on their vehicles. State law currently requires interlock devices for drivers with more than one DUI. Judges would have the discretion to order the devices as well as the 24/7 program.

In general, the program outlined in HB 7005, approved unanimously by the House Economic Affairs Committee, would require that drivers submit to twice-daily breath tests, random urinalysis or continuous monitoring devices, such as drug patches or ankle bracelets.

Supporters say the 24/7 abstinence-based programs have shown significant reductions in drunken driving and other alcohol- or drug-related offenses such as domestic violence, and have better compliance rates than the interlock devices.

The proposal is the latest salvo in a vendor-driven fight about possibly expanding the use of ignition interlock devices, used by more than 10,000 Floridians, to first-time DUI offenders. Vendors have pushed that idea over the objections of state highway safety officials.

But instead of adding to the vendors' market share, an amendment slipped onto HB 7005 last week would lead to the new 24/7 program --- possibly shrinking the use of interlock devices. The bill also includes a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford dealing with driver's licenses.

Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles Executive Director Julie Jones, who recently lost a court fight to interlock-device vendors, is one of a growing number of driving safety experts who believe the abstinence-based programs are a better way to ensure that repeat offenders clean up their act. Jones has proposed shifting half of interlock-device users into a 24/7 program and measuring the effectiveness of both programs for five years.

"The current IID (ignition interlock device) program has been very helpful for the treatment of impaired driving offenders. But why limit ourselves to one method that is exclusive to drinking while driving while drugged-driving violations continue to increase?" Jones said recently.

Jones said she was not responsible for the amendment that would give judges the option to impose the 24/7 program instead of the interlock devices, but she did change it so that her department would have to authorize the program. And she has repeatedly objected to efforts by the vendors to expand the interlock-device program --- a $10 million a year industry in Florida --- to first-time offenders, something backed by Mothers Against Drunk Driving and favored by federal transportation officials. But Jones said research shows that the majority of first-time offenders don't need more intervention to stay out of trouble.

The amendment was proposed by a vendor for Intoximeter, a hand-held breath testing device used by 24/7 programs elsewhere and already in use in other programs in Florida.

Letting drivers with multiple DUI offenses get behind the wheel without interlock devices would be a major shift in policy, Douglas Mannheimer, a lobbyist for Alcohol Countermeasure Systems, told the House panel last week. ACS is one of three interlock vendors now doing business with the state.

"The difference in policy now is that person that's in the program may … go to the convenience store, buy something, get in that car. Right now … the car would not start," Mannheimer said.

But under the proposed changes, "we could have second, third or even fourth offenders driving when I think the word is they proverbially fell off the wagon that afternoon," he said.

Meanwhile, a pilot 24/7 program in Jacksonville, the first in Florida, is slated to begin during the first week in May. The program was developed by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and the Northeast Florida Safety Council, the organization that provides court-ordered services, including DUI programs, in a nine-county region including Jacksonville.

Bill Mickelson helped create the country's first "24/7 Sobriety" program in 2005 when, as a deputy state attorney general in South Dakota, he was intent on reducing the number of prisoners locked up for alcohol- or drug-related offenses, about two-thirds of those behind bars in the state at the time.

Mickelson, now a consultant, came to Florida to try to convince sheriffs and others to embrace the 24/7 abstinence approach for habitual offenders. In the eight years since South Dakota implemented 24/7, 37,000 individuals have participated in the program and provided a total of 7 million breath tests. A RAND Corp. study found a 12 percent reduction in repeat DUI arrests over a five-year period.

"It's the first time in their alcoholic careers that somebody's held them accountable for their sobriety," Mickelson, who also consults for Intoximeters, Inc., said. "There is a sure and measured and a swift consequence for a bad act, unlike other testing methodologies where there's a time delay."

South Dakota's 24/7 program has become a model for the country, and federal highway safety officials are encouraging states to adopt it. So far, only two other states --- North Dakota and Montana --- have implemented similar programs statewide.

The programs are premised on frequent testing paired with immediate consequences, usually jail time, for individuals who fail breath tests. In Jacksonville, those who fail breath tests for the first time will go to jail for 12 hours and face 24 hours for a second slip. The same consequences apply for individuals wearing patches or bracelets measuring alcohol or drugs. A third failure would result in an appearance before a judge and incarceration.

The interlock devices have been in use in Florida for a decade. Since then, nearly 6,000 of the 68,048 drivers ordered into the program received subsequent DUIs, and about 1,000 received DUIs while they were in the interlock program, according to data provided by the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.

The Jacksonville pilot project will give judges the option of ordering the 24/7 program as a requirement for pretrial release, probation or bond, and is not limited to driving offenses. Drivers ordered into the program may also have to participate in other programs, including rehab or counseling, required separately for some DUI offenders.

Northeast Florida Safety Council Executive Director Sue Holley, who helped develop the Duval County pilot project, said interlock devices work well for some drivers. But the devices don't stop people from drinking and driving or from drinking altogether.

"The substance abuse issue is so complicated and complex and it's very difficult to find the one thing that works for everybody," Holley, who has worked with DUI programs for three decades.

Like DHSMV Director Jones, Holley views 24/7 sobriety as a more modern, holistic approach toward treating repeat offenders before allowing them to have their licenses fully reinstated.

"We're looking at this program, the 24/7 program, as probably being the next revelation for the DUI programs to be able to better serve the DUI offender, to provide better outcomes as far as their success with not re-offending, which is our goal," she said. "I want to be able to go home and sleep at night. I don't want to have to rely on one single tool to be the magic torch."
"The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report."

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