Carlton: Will new state attorney give DUI drivers a big break?

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The question — posed to just-elected Hillsborough State Attorney Andrew Warren in a room full of lawyers not yet sure what to make of the new guy — was a good one.

In courts across Florida, certain first-time offenders get the chance to avoid trials — and more importantly criminal records — for less serious offenses. Would the new state attorney consider starting such a diversion program for people charged with DUI?

That's DUI we're talking about, a rallying cry for the powerful and passionate Mothers Against Drunk Driving, but also a charge that can seriously disrupt the life of someone with no other arrest record.

For Warren, a former federal prosecutor who just ousted longtime State Attorney Mark Ober, this is particularly provocative. His campaign emphasized rehabilitation over retribution in certain cases. He has said he plans to target violent crimes and chronic criminals while finding "smart alteratives" for nonviolent and first-time offenders.

Warren, who so far has chosen his words with the precision of a man defusing a bomb with a very dull pair of tweezers, did not commit. He later said through spokeswoman Rena Frazier he is "evaluating and considering whether a DUI diversion program would be feasible and effective" here.

A handful of Florida counties have such programs. It generally works like this: A driver has to be a first-time offender with a valid license, no kids or animals in the car and no resulting crash. Once accepted, the driver must complete a list of requirements including DUI school, alcohol treatment if recommended, community service hours, a victim impact course, and fees and costs. The DUI becomes a reckless driving charge and adjudication is withheld, meaning there's no formal finding of guilt.

Prosecutors — even those who don't love the idea of DUI diversion — will tell you they've seen compelling first-time cases involving an airline pilot or someone with high security clearance for whom a conviction could be professionally devastating. Attorney Todd Foster, who asked Warren the question that day, said he was thinking of juveniles like his client for whom a DUI record could end a college scholarship.

Proponents cite fewer cases clogging the court system and a second chance for the truly repentant and unlikely to re-offend.

Palm Beach County State Attorney Dave Aronberg actually got a buy-in from MADD. His program includes a requirement for an ignition interlock device which measures a driver's breath for alcohol before allowing a car to start during the probationary period. With about 2,100 pending and completed DUI diversion cases since the program started in 2013, Aronberg says they have seen less than 1 percent re-offend. "It's a win, win," he says.

Not everyone is sold. Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe, says McCabe generally has not liked "the cash register justice approach to it" — costs some can afford and others can't to get out of a DUI conviction.

In at least one circuit, a defendant can choose to pay $500 or $1,000 (depending on blood-alcohol level) to MADD or one of several other community groups.

DUI diversion may not get ringing support from some defense lawyers for whom such cases are bread and butter. There will be those who say DUI is too serious a crime. And what happens when a defendant who got a break later kills someone while driving drunk?

For New Guy Warren, it's one to watch.

Sue Carlton can be reached at [email protected]

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