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DID ALCOHOL LEAD TO FATALITY?

A defendant's behavior and actions, not his blood-alcohol content, will be the focus of prosecutors.

How do you prove, or disprove, that someone drove under the influence?

First answer: 0.08. The blood-alcohol level, well-known to Florida drivers, at which the law presumes someone impaired.

But the law provides another way to prove DUI, and that's by showing that irrespective of the number of drinks someone had, his or her normal faculties were impaired.

In the early hours of Oct. 19, 2006, according to authorities, Elias Soto was driving a white BMW east on State Road 54. At Meadow Pointe Boulevard, he crashed into a work site where workers were installing traffic signal sensors in the road.

One man, 18-year-old Michael Gunter of Lakeland, was loading an industrial saw onto a trailer when he was struck and thrown into the median. He had two broken legs and internal bleeding at the crash scene and died a few months later, in the spring of 2007.

Soto, now 50 and living in Zephyrhills, faces trial this week in Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa's courtroom on charges of DUI manslaughter, manslaughter by culpable negligence and two counts of DUI.

The two manslaughter charges are second-degree felonies, each punishable by 15 years in prison.

The evidence against Soto includes this:

- The other workers who rushed to Gunter's aide said Soto was laughing and chatting when he got out of his car. Then he urinated in the road.

- The Florida Highway Patrol trooper who responded wrote in a report that Soto smelled like alcohol and performed poorly on field sobriety tests. That was enough to arrest him.

- Later, at the Land O'Lakes jail, Soto took a blood-alcohol test. The results, according to FHP: 0.051 and 0.055, well below the legal limit.

J. Larry Hart, a former state and federal prosecutor who now does criminal defense work, said the blood-alcohol test result leaves prosecutors without the presumption of impairment.

"But it unequivocally establishes the consumption of alcoholic beverages," said Hart, who is not connected to the case.

From there, prosecutors can use other evidence to try to convince a jury of Soto's impairment - namely, the observations of the witnesses and trooper.

"They're going to become certainly more significant than they might otherwise be," he said, "because the numbers aren't there."

The defense, Hart said, would want to emphasize that Soto did not have an unlawful level of alcohol in his blood.

"That would be certainly beneficial," he said.

DUI cases, he said, without the magic 0.08 are not uncommon - and neither are convictions.

"It certainly is very possible and very realistic to appreciate that as something that could happen," Hart said. "You can't dismiss it."

Molly Moorhead can be reached at moorhead@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6245.

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