DUI Suspensions Challenged in Florida

Alcoholic drink and car keysA Florida law that permits the administrative suspension of a driver’s license because the driver tested “over the limit” is being challenged in a class action lawsuit. Administrative suspension laws have been widely adopted across the United States. Most state laws require a suspension to take effect after a period of days unless the driver requests an administrative hearing, but Florida’s law imposes an on-the-spot suspension.

The lawsuit contends that the Florida law violates the due process rights of drivers whose licenses are suspended without a hearing. Since the current version of Florida’s administrative suspension law went into effect four years ago, about 240,000 Florida drivers have had their licenses suspended automatically. The federal court lawsuit seeks an award of damages for the civil rights violation that each of those drivers allegedly suffered.

Administrative Suspensions

Administrative suspension laws come into play after a driver takes a breathalyzer test or blood test that reveals a blood alcohol concentration in excess of the legal limit. Every state pegs that limit at 0.08% for most adult drivers, although states typically set a lower limit for commercial drivers and minors.

Most state laws require the police to provide the driver with an administrative suspension notice after the driver “fails” a breath or blood test. That notice advises the driver that his or her driving privileges will be suspended for a specified period of time. For a first offense, most states impose a suspension in the range of 3 to 6 months, although some states impose suspensions as short as 7 days or as long as 1 year.

Suspensions typically begin 30 days after the notice is issued. Drivers usually have 10 days after receiving the notice to request a hearing. If they make that request, the suspension does not take effect unless an administrative hearing officer holds a hearing and decides that the suspension is valid under state law.

Florida’s law departs from the usual model. The law makes the suspension effective immediately, before any hearing is held. The police issue the driver a temporary driver’s permit that remains valid for 10 days. The permit authorizes work-related driving as well as limited driving to meet personal needs (such as buying groceries).

After the permit expires, the driver cannot drive for a period of 6 months unless, within 10 days after the notice is issued, the driver requests and receives a work-related restricted driver’s license. The driver’s other option is to request an administrative hearing, but the suspension remains in effect until the hearing date (and thereafter, if the driver loses).

Due Process

Court decisions have long established that drivers have a property interest in their driver’s licenses that is subject to due process protections. At a minimum, the right to due process requires a state to give an alleged wrongdoer a meaningful opportunity to be heard before taking an action that deprives the wrongdoer of a property interest that it has previously conferred.

Due process does not require a prior hearing when there is likely to be little doubt about the facts, provided that the opportunity for a hearing is available after the property deprivation occurs. Suspensions based on prior traffic law violations fall within that category.

The Supreme Court also upheld (by a 5-4 vote) a Massachusetts law that permitted an immediate license suspension to be based on a driver’s refusal to submit to a breath or blood test. A majority of the Court concluded that there is usually little doubt about whether a driver refused the test (an observation with which many DUI attorneys would disagree). In addition, Massachusetts claimed to give drivers the right to an immediate, same-day hearing after the suspension was imposed. The dissent expressed skepticism about that claim, given that Massachusetts did not advise suspended drivers of any such right.

Florida Lawsuit

The Florida statute does not purport to grant an immediate, post-suspension hearing. Rather, the officer who makes the DUI arrest keeps the driver’s license based on the “failed” test. A suspension takes effect immediately. Although the driver can request a hearing, significant time will pass before the hearing is held. During that time, the driver cannot make full use of driving privileges. If a hearing officer eventually concludes that the suspension was not justified (because, for example, the officer lacked a legitimate reason to stop or arrest the driver), the driver cannot get back the lost days of driving.

Many drivers opt to forego a post-suspension hearing in favor of seeking a restricted driver’s license that will last until the suspension ends. The lawsuit alleges that the State of Florida makes about $60 million each year from the fees it charges for those restricted licenses. Providing a pre-suspension hearing might therefore result in a loss of revenue for Florida.

Whether the lawsuit will be decided in favor of the Florida drivers who brought it is unclear. It seems likely, however, that the case will go to a federal appellate court, and possibly the United States Supreme Court, before Floridians will learn whether they are entitled to a hearing before their licenses are suspended for failing a DUI chemical test.

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