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Drink Driving – The Basics

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Introduction

It is every motorist’s nightmare to be charged with drink driving.  The whole process may start with no more than a faulty headlight or some minor driver error attracting the attention of the police.  Alternatively, there may have been a crash or an allegation made by a third party but once the police are on the scene the motorist may be required to take a preliminary breath test.  If the test is positive the suspect will be arrested, usually handcuffed, and conveyed to a police station.  At the station the suspect will be obliged to undergo a further test to establish whether s/he is over the drink drive limit.  Usually a breathalayser test is administered and it is known quickly whether the limit has been exceeded.  If a breath test is not practical a blood or urine sample will be taken and the suspect will be bailed pending a charging decision.

Charge

If the suspect is charged on the same occasion as s/he was arrested then the ‘Defendant’ is required to attend court on a given date and time (usually within the following 4 weeks).  At court the Defendant will be required to plead to the offence (either ‘Guilty’ or ‘Not Guilty’).  If the Defendant tenders a ‘Guilty’ plea the court will hear the facts of the case followed by the defence mitigation (those matters which should be taken into account in favour of the Defendant).  Sentencing usually follows immediately.  The Defendant is entitled to the ‘credit’ for a ‘Guilty’ plea.  This means that the sentence will be less severe than it would have been if the Defendant had pleaded ‘Not Guilty’ and been convicted following a trial on a later occasion.

If the Defendant tenders a ‘Not Guilty’ plea the court takes a written account of the basis of the defence before making directions that the prosecution and defence must follow (in order to ensure a fair trial).  If the defence contest the accuracy of the equipment used by the prosecution this will often require directions as to expert witnesses too.  The court will usually then set a trial date when the parties will reconvene in order to take part in the actual trial.

The Evidence

The police provide a bundle of evidence which is sent to the CPS.  This is usually obtained by the Defence at some point before the first court hearing; the defence lawyer has to log onto a digital system to download the case papers.  These can then be emailed to the Defendant.  This material is different from, and in addition to, the charge / bail sheets that the Defendant will have been given upon charge.  It usually consists of a case summary, some witness statements and some evidence of the results of the breathalyser (or blood or urine) tests.  

The Penalties

These range from immediate prison, at the top end of the scale, to community penalties in the middle, to fines at the bottom end of the scale.  However the court sentences the Defendant there is always, additionally, a mandatory, minimum 12 month disqualification.  The minimum length is reserved for the most minor cases.  Much longer disqualifications will follow in more serious cases.  The court has the discretion to allow the Defendant to take a Drink Drive Rehabilitation course.  If authorised by the court to do so the Defendant will have to pay a fee and complete the course by a set date.  Then, s/he will be entitled to a 25% reduction in the length of the ban imposed by the court.

The Sentencing

If the Defendant admits the offence the court will consider the facts as presented to it by the parties.  If there is a material dispute as to the facts this will have to be resolved by the court before it moves to sentence.  If any disagreement is relatively minor this will not hold up the sentencing.  The court will have to consider the overall culpability of the Defendant in each case.  It must follow sentencing guidelines unless the court considers that it would be contrary to the interests of justice to do so (which is very rare).  The starting point on the sentencing scale is determined by the level of alcohol in the breath, blood or urine.  However, the court can move up or down the sentencing scale depending on the aggravating and mitigating factors which it finds applies to the case.  This will enable it to find a sentencing range within which the Defendant should be sentenced.  The purpose of the Defence submissions is to seek to persuade the court to move as far down the sentencing scale as possible.

Defence Lawyers

Motorists often ring around lawyers and are attracted to those who seem to offer a way out of the maze in which they find themselves. Sometimes amazing success rates’ are quoted and bold claims are made of being likely to be able to find ‘loopholes’ in the prosecution case.  Do bear in mind that if it sounds too good to be true it probably is too good to be true.  A touch of scepticism can sometimes be required to assess whose guidance you can trust.

Conclusion

It can be a bewildering experience to be charged with drink driving.  However, the worst thing one can do is to panic.  No matter how scared of the consequences of prosecution there will be a rational way forward.  The path one takes depends on all the facts of the case. However, the most important thing to establish as quickly as possible is how to plead.  It should be bourne in mind that even the strongest of cases can be contested and doing so is guaranteed to prolong the stress and costs of a case; it is somewhat less likely to result in an acquittal.  So, rather than asking your family and friends who, though well intentioned, rarely have any detailed knowledge of the relevant laws and procedures, you will probably be well advised to obtain some initial guidance from a specialist motoring offence lawyer.  If you find yourself in this situation please don’t hesitate to call.

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