Many people find the law relating to drink drive offences confusing. Given the technical complexities involved this is hardly surprising. To help those who are struggling, specialist drink driving solicitor Jen Law summarises the legal position in plain English and explains why the so-called ‘special reasons’ are so important and could be the difference between retaining and losing your license.
My starting point when attempting to summarise our drink drive laws is to simply say that if someone drives (or attempts to drive) a motor vehicle on a road or other public place (such as a car park where the public are allowed access) in England or Wales, then they must not have more alcohol in their system than the legal limit allows.
So what is the legal limit?
The limit depends on how the level of alcohol in the body is being measured: breath, blood and urine can all be tested.
- Breath – 35 microgrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of breath;
- Blood – 80 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood;
- Urine – 107 milligrammes of alcohol in 100 millilitres of urine.
If someone is over the limit then they are guilty of a criminal offence of driving with excess alcohol.
In most circumstances being found to have driven with excess alcohol would result in a plea of ‘guilty’ to a drink driving charge.
When someone pleads guilty to a drink drive offence, the Court must impose a disqualification from driving for a minimum period of 12 months unless the Court is satisfied there are ‘special reasons’.
Unhelpfully, there is no definition of ‘special reasons’ in any legislation, but the following requirements must usually be present:-
- It must not amount to a full defence (which, if successful, would result in an acquittal)
- It must be directly connected to the offence (but not a personal circumstance of the offender) and;
- It must be a mitigating or exceptional circumstance.
Normally in a criminal case, the Prosecution must prove ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ that the offender is guilty. However, if in a drink driving case a defendant wishes to put a ‘special reasons’ argument before the Court then the burden of proof reverses. This means that it is then for the defendant to prove to the Court that the ‘special reasons’ argument is genuine.
Fortunately, the defendant doesn’t face such a high hurdle of proof, only being required to prove something on the ‘balance of probabilities’. This is the civil burden of proof, which in percentage terms can be as little as 51/49% in the defendant’s favour.
Now, you are probably wanting to know what these ‘special reasons’ are which could save someone from being disqualified from driving.
First, let me deal with what will not amount to ‘special reasons’. Whilst the attributes on the list below may result in the Court having sympathy for the defendant, and can be taken into account in mitigation to help reduce the severity of the sentence imposed, they are not at a level of being so critical as to amount to ‘special reasons’:-
- Good character – i.e. having no previous convictions;
- Personal service to the community – eg being a paramedic or firefighter;
- Financial hardship will be caused by being banned – eg loss of job/business;
- The offence was not particularly serious –eg low level alcohol reading or no accident/evidence of bad driving;
- Ignorance of the terms of any motor insurance, unless the driver has been misled or there is a very good reason for the ignorance – such as illness or other people causing confusion.
Now to the common special reasons which could save a license:-
- Spiked drinks or mistake about the item consumed– For example, if someone says they have bought you an orange juice but they have been slipping vodka into it, you can argue at Court that you did not know you had consumed alcohol. The Court would generally need evidence to support this assertion although it is of course possible for them to take the word of the defendant as the truth once they have heard that person’s account and assessed its reliability;
- Medical or other emergency – for example if someone is having a heart attack, you have phoned an ambulance or rung for assistance and have not received help so that there is a life or death situation. You make the decision that you must drive to save that person even though you have had a drink;
- Short distance driven – this is the least successful of the special reasons arguments and must usually be coupled with another factor – eg a vehicle is blocking the way of an emergency service vehicle and must be moved, so the drunk driver moves the vehicle a few yards to clear the road.
- If you are in danger or are being attacked and you drive only as far as necessary to safety.
There are 7 factors to take into account with a ‘shortness of distance’ argument:-
- Manner of driving;
- State of the vehicle;
- Road and traffic conditions;
- Danger to other users;
- Intention to drive further;
- Reason for driving
If the Court finds a ‘special reasons’ argument proved, it has the discretion to impose points, to reduce the disqualification or to impose no ban at all. However, if the driver would otherwise have been disqualified under a mandatory disqualification and the Court decides not to impose any ban,it must impose some points.
I would stress that this is the briefest of summaries. Motoring offences are a highly technical and complex area and it pays to take specialist professional advice, particularly in view of how important a driving license is to most people.
Motoring offences don’t generally attract legal aid, but we do offer manageable instalment plans and fixed fees to assist those paying privately.
I am able to travel to attend courts throughout the south west, including Devon, Somerset, Dorset, Cornwall and Avon.
If you are facing prosecution and would like to know what we can do for you then give me a call on 01271 372128 or email me at [email protected]