Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Drunken Driving Targeted

Newspaper article Sarasota Herald Tribune

Drunken Driving Targeted

Article excerpt

SARASOTA: Sheriff Knight encourages all his officers to make DUI stops

SARASOTA COUNTY -- With so many drunken driving cases making headlines lately, the public may wonder to what extent local cops on the road are focused on catching inebriated drivers.

Drunken driving arrests for most law enforcement agencies in Sarasota and Manatee counties have either held fairly steady or declined in recent years.

The Sarasota County Sheriff's Office is an exception.

In 2008, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Sarasota County deputies logged 525 arrests for driving under the influence. Last year, the Sheriff's Office says, they jailed 843 drivers on that charge -- an increase of about 60 percent.

That jump in numbers was not by chance.

When Sheriff Tom Knight assumed office in 2009, he took the helm of an agency that had been heavily criticized by Mothers Against Drunk Drivers for its declining numbers of DUI arrests. He vowed to reverse that trend.

"That's our job," Knight said. "Why would we not do that? We have the resources to do it."

Having repeatedly heard from residents that their chief public safety concern is traffic-related crimes -- whether red light runners, texting drivers or impaired drivers -- the newly elected sheriff emphasized his expectation that deputies not ignore traffic violations.

In the past four years, traffic citations by Sarasota County deputies have climbed from 25,725 to 38,469. Many of those traffic stops led to the arrests of drivers on other charges -- such as narcotics possession or on warrants for violent crimes.

Among those, DUI arrests have especially soared.

That is because all of the agency's 157 deputies, sergeants and lieutenants assigned to patrols -- not just the sergeant and five deputies assigned nightly DUI details -- are expected to arrest any driver suspected of being impaired.

They all have undergone 36 hours of training specifically in how to handle drunken driving cases.

The DUI units are equipped with video cameras and Breathalyzers that can assist a deputy in collecting evidence to make a case.

Most patrol deputies do not have that equipment, though.

"Even if a DUI unit is not available, our expectation is that they make that arrest," Knight said.

An arrest can be based on a deputy's willingness to testify that a driver failed a "field sobriety test." The test determines a driver's ability to count, walk heel-to-toe, stand on one leg, maintain his or her balance, answer simple questions and follow other instructions.

An arrested driver can then be administered a breath test at either the Sarasota or Venice jail. A driver is considered intoxicated if his or her blood alcohol level is .08 or higher. For a driver younger than 21, the standard is lower -- .02.

If the driver caused an accident with death or injuries, the deputy can insist a paramedic administer a blood test.

Arrest reports show that the level of intoxication of some apprehended drivers is alarming. …

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