TALLAHASSEE — The state cannot suspend a driver's license for refusing to take a breath test if the motorist was not lawfully arrested, a sharply divided Florida Supreme Court ruled Thursday in a pair of cases from Duval and Polk counties.
The 4-3 majority noted Florida's "implied consent" law allows suspensions only for valid arrests.
"Florida law does not require an individual to submit to a breath alcohol-detection test simply because that person possesses a driver's license," the majority wrote in the unsigned opinion.
The ruling also says administrative hearing officers can still determine if arrests are lawful although specific authority for such decisions was removed from a law outlining their duties in 2006.
"To remove that consideration from the hearing officer's review would allow illegal suspensions without any possibility of a meaningful process to challenge the legality of the suspension," the majority wrote, adding that would violate a motorist's constitutional due process rights.
The validity of an arrest is an issue that continues to fall within the hearing officers' authority to determine if police had "probable cause" for an arrest and whether a motorist "refused to submit to any such test" because of the requirement that breath tests must be lawful, the majority concluded.
Both issues were certified to the Supreme Court as questions of great public importance by the 1st District Court of Appeal.
Licenses can be suspended for a year for a first refusal to take a breath test and 18 months for each subsequent refusal.
In dissent, Chief Justice Charles Canady wrote that the majority has expanded hearing officers' authority beyond the scope of their legal powers and he noted licensed drivers are responsible for knowing the law.
Justices Barbara Pariente, R. Fred Lewis and James Perry fully concurred with the majority opinion while Justice Peggy Quince agreed only with the result.
Quince wrote that she supported requiring that drivers be given an opportunity to appeal a suspension because otherwise the implied consent law would be unconstitutional, but she disagreed with the opinion's "statutory construction."
Justices Ricky Polston and Jorge Labarga concurred with Canady's dissent.
The ruling upheld a 1st District Court decision that the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles illegally suspended the license of William Hernandez because a hearing officer refused to consider his argument that his 2007 arrest was invalid.
Hernandez refused to take a breath test when arrested at a nearby apartment after his vehicle allegedly struck an illegally parked car in Duval.
The ruling conflicted with a decision by the 2nd District Court of Appeal that hearing officers could not decide the lawfulness of arrests in the case of George McLaughlin. He had been arrested, also in 2007, in Polk. The 2nd District's opinion was issued after McLaughlin's suspension ended so that part of his appeal was moot.