TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Four decades ago, Thomas Carey moved to Florida and married the love of his life. But just six months later, he held her funeral.
“Well, it was devastating,” Carey said. “To be honest.”
She was killed by a drunk driver.
“All the people that had been at the wedding,” Carey explained. “Were then at the funeral.”
Joni Carey’s death changed the course of his career as a personal injury attorney — he has been representing DUI victims ever since she passed.
“You could eliminate drunk driving deaths tomorrow,” Carey said. “If people just said, ‘Alright, I’m not going to do that anymore.'”
Now, a state representative from Tampa has proposed legislation that would levy harsher penalties on drivers who refuse breathalyzer tests.
Rep. Traci Koster (R-66) introduced HB 197 to increase the penalties already under Florida’s implied consent law.
“It’s designed to fully enforce this already existing statute that’s been around for decades,” Carey said. “So I’m in favor of it. I think it’ll save lives.”
Under the current law, people who refuse to take a breathalyzer test could have their license suspended for as long as a year to 18 months, depending on if they have previously had their license suspended.
Koster’s bill includes harsher penalties for drivers who refuse to take a “lawful” breath-alcohol test. In addition to the 1-year suspension, a first-time offender would have to install an ignition interlock device in the vehicle that is used “routinely” by the driver, even if it’s jointly owned or leased—and it would be at their expense.
Drivers must blow into the small handheld device and beat the breath test before the car will start. Subsequent refusals to take the breathalyzer test would lead to an extended period for using the device, going to 18 months from 12, also at the driver’s expense.
In an email to 8 On Your Side, Koster said the intent of the bill is not to prevent people from going about their daily lives.
“The intent is to deter and prevent drunk driving,” Koster wrote. “Closing a loophole when people refuse the breathalyzer.”
Koster also cited state statistics from 2019 and 2020.
“We are ranked third when it comes to alcohol-involved deaths,” Koster wrote. “Florida’s breathalyzer refusal rate is at 82 percent.”
Mothers Against Drunk Driving and Larry Coggins support the bill.
“Since ignition interlock devices came into fruition in Florida back in the early 2000s,” Coggins said. “A little over 109,000 attempts to crank a vehicle by an impaired person have been prevented.”
Coggins said the current law has little impact on a person who really wants to get behind the wheel — but the bill may help.
“No matter how many laws we have and how much teeth we put into the laws,” Coggins said. “How about not driving impaired to start with and none of this has to be a concern or a worry?”
If the bill passes, the legislation would go into effect on July 1.