A decades-old misdemeanor DUI case in South Florida was being doggedly pursued by prosecutors after the defendant, upon learning there was a warrant for his arrest, contacted the judge and asked that the charges be dropped.
Our Daytona Beach DUI lawyers understand that by sending his letter, the defendant inadvertently reactivated the case, which had by that point been lost in the shuffle of the the tens of thousands of DUI arrests made annually in the state.
However, the question that arose for many when this case was spotlighted earlier this year was: How could prosecutors go after someone who was suspected of a misdemeanor crime back in 1987? Hadn't the statute of limitations expired?
The answer is no.
Had the defendant never been arrested in the first place, it would be different. However, the clock on the statute of limitations does not continue to tick if the defendant absconds, which is what is alleged to have happened in this case.
According to media reports, the defendant, then 21, was intoxicated when he struck a parked vehicle in a parking lot in Dania Beach, just outside of Fort Lauderdale. Officers arrested him after he failed a number of sobriety tests and his blood-alcohol level measured 0.23 percent (the legal limit at the time was 0.10 percent).
Early on in the case, he challenged the breathalyzer result, saying it was erroneous. For some reason, he believed that the case had been dropped as a result of this challenge. It hadn't, and when he didn't show up for court, a warrant was issued for his arrest. However, he continued to live in Florida. His license continued to be renewed. He never had any issues. He then moved to Sweden, got married and had a child.
It wasn't until a return visit to the United States that he became aware that there was still a warrant for his arrest out of Florida for that old DUI case. He wrote a letter to the judge, requesting that the charge be dropped, as the case was more than 25 years-old and the prosecution's evidence was weak anyway.
Rather than dismiss the case, however, prosecutors used this letter as a reason to revive it. There was a back-and-forth battle for months until, finally, prosecutors conceded that after 25 years, the evidence in the case had eroded to the point where they could not continue to pursue it in good faith.
But it had nothing to do with the statute of limitations.
In Florida, the statute of limitations for a DUI is going to depend on the exact charge. Florida Statute 775.15, spells out time limitations and exceptions on prosecution of crimes. The law says that for a second-degree misdemeanor DUI, a prosecution has to begin within one year of the alleged incident. For first-degree misdemeanor DUI cases, prosecutors have two years during which to file charges. For most felonies, prosecutors are given three years during which to file charges, except first-degree felonies, for which they have four years. There are of course exceptions that allow 5 and 10-year extensions, and some that go even beyond that, depending on the circumstances.
Another exception is that the period of limitation does not run any time during which the defendant is continuously absent from the state or has no reasonable ascertainable place of abode or work within the state. That means that so long as the defendant was charged or indicted within a reasonable amount of time, his absence won't work in his favor.
Generally, the clock on the statute of limitations for any Florida crime begins to tick at the time of the alleged offense, except in a few cases involving certain sexually-motivated offenses wherein the victim was a minor or the identity of the perpetrator does not become known until much later.
So in the case of a DUI, for the most part, if you aren't charged within a two-to-four-year time period, you could likely argue an expired statute of limitations as a defense. Anyone who is suspected of a DUI in Florida should contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to explore all options.
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