The Complete Guide to Fighting a Drink Driving Charge in England and Wales

October 31, 2023 12:30 pm
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Fighting a Drink Driving Charge

Being charged with a drink driving offence can have serious repercussions that negatively impact your life for years to come. A conviction can mean heavy fines, prison time, losing your licence, and lasting damage to your criminal record. That’s why it’s critical to understand the charges you may face and build the strongest possible defence with experienced legal representation. 

This comprehensive guide will walk you through the key steps to take if you’ve been accused of drink driving in the UK. We’ll cover the potential offences and penalties, police procedures, building your defence case, the court process, and laws across the UK. With the right information and legal support, you can avoid harsh outcomes and protect your future.

 

Contents:

  1. Drink Driving Offences and Penalties
  2. Police Procedures for Drink Driving Charges
  3. Building Your Defence Against the Charges
  4. The Court Process If Charged
  5. Conclusion

 

Section 1 – Drink Driving Offences and Penalties

If caught driving while over the legal alcohol limit, you could face prosecution for a drink driving offence in the UK. This section covers the key offences and potential penalties upon conviction. Understanding precisely what you are charged with and the associated consequences is critical to mounting your defence and mitigating outcomes.

The UK has strict laws against drinking and driving. Being “over the limit” for blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is illegal while operating a motor vehicle. The current maximum legal limit across the UK does vary, however, the legal limit is the same in England and Wales and is:

  • 36 micrograms (mcg) of alcohol per 100 millilitres (ml) of breath

Being over these defined limits will lead to a drink driving charge if caught. Offences include:

1. Driving or Attempting to Drive Over the Limit

This offence means driving or attempting to operate a motor vehicle on public roads after consuming alcohol over the legal limit. This includes cars, motorcycles, and all motor vehicles. Police can stop drivers and test their breath, blood, or urine to check their BAC level. Being over the legal limit while behind the wheel is enough evidence to charge this offence.

Those convicted of drink driving face up to six months imprisonment and an unlimited fine. Even those avoiding a prison sentence can be at risk of a community order that requires them to complete up to 300 hours of unpaid work. A convicted person will also be disqualified from driving for potentially lengthy periods. There is no maximum to the ban that can be imposed, but courts rarely disqualify a driver for more than five years.

2. Being “In Charge” of a Vehicle Over the Limit

You can be charged with this offence even if you are not actively driving a vehicle. Merely being “in charge” of a vehicle while intoxicated over the legal limit constitutes an offence. This applies to situations like sitting in the driver’s seat with the keys in the ignition, even if the vehicle is parked. It also includes any situations where you have access to driving a vehicle while intoxicated.

If convicted, you face substantial penalties depending on factors like how far over the limit you are. Sentencing guidelines provide recommended punishments based on the severity of the offence:

For first time lower-level offences of being between 36-59mcg over the limit in England/Wales, common sentences include:

  • Unlimited fine 
  • 10 penalty points or a driving ban
  • Community service in some cases

For more serious offences common sentences include:

  • Unlimited fine
  • Immediate driving ban
  • Community service, such as unpaid work for up to 300 hours

The maximum penalties, like unlimited fines and up to 3 months in prison, tend to be reserved for the most serious and repeated offences. Defending against the charges and mitigating penalties within the guidelines is critical.

Fully understanding the potential offences and repercussions is the first step in confronting drink driving charges. Once caught over the legal limit, a standardised series of police procedures will ensue, governing critical decisions around testing, questioning, and defence preparation. Knowing your rights and obligations within each phase of police protocol can enable you to protect your best interests in the face of prosecution. The next section will explore the typical procedures following an initial drink driving stop.

 

Section 2 – Police Procedures for Drink Driving Charges

Being stopped by police on suspicion of drink driving sets off a sequence of events governed by strict protocols and procedures. While laws vary between different regions of the UK, the general process from the roadside to the station is similar. Understanding what to expect can help protect your rights during this difficult scenario. This section will provide an overview of standard drink driving procedures in four key phases:

  • Being Pulled Over
  • Testing for Blood Alcohol Content
  • Arrest and Transport to the Police Station
  • Processing and Interviews at the Station

Knowing the proper police processes and your rights within each phase will empower you to interact strategically during questioning and testing. With wise decisions and legal counsel, you can build the strongest case in response to the charges.

Being Pulled Over

Police have broad powers to stop any vehicle at any time to check for alcohol impairment, even without evidence of poor driving. Roadblocks, random checks, and routine licence/insurance document checks can all lead to an investigation.

Officers will look for initial signs of intoxication like slurred speech, slow reactions, and red or glassy eyes. They may ask probing questions about your destination, reason for driving, alcohol consumption, or administer on-the-spot sobriety tests.

While obligations vary between regions, officers generally have the power to conduct breath screening tests whenever pulled over. Drivers must provide a breath sample when required, or face penalties equivalent to a failed test.

However, you should not engage in casual conversation with officers or admit to any alcohol consumption prior to speaking with your solicitor. Be cooperative by providing the required documents, but do not say more than is necessary before obtaining legal advice.

Testing for Blood Alcohol Content at the Roadside

The first step in an investigation is usually for the police to require you to provide a roadside breath test using a screening device. This checks your alcohol level. If you appear to be over the limit, the police officer will arrest you. If you are under the limit, they will usually allow you to go on your way; however, the officer may still arrest you if s/he suspects the screen device is faulty.

While roadside breath tests only provide an indication of alcohol presence, failing one gives police to arrest you and is a criminal offence in itself. 

Arrest and Transport to the Police Station

After failing a roadside breath test, police can immediately place a suspect under arrest for suspicion of drink driving. A formal arrest must be accompanied by a police caution about legal rights. Drink driving arrests allow officers to use “reasonable force” if necessary.

Police vans or personal vehicles will transport suspects to the nearest station equipped for evidence processing. 

The suspect cannot be questioned during transit to the station.

Taking the evidential sample

Police will usually require a specimen of breath in the first instance. This is provided by the suspect blowing into a machine known as an Evidential Breath Test Machine (EBM). There are a handful of makes of these machines in service at the moment. Broadly speaking, they work by using an infrared beam to analyse the component parts of your breath and then produce a report about its findings. One make of EBM, uses the infrared beam only to detect deep lung air. Once that is detected it then syphons off a small amount of the breath into a secondary test chamber where it performs a different type of analysis on the breath specimen.

If the EBM is unavailable – or if there is a medical reason the suspect cannot provide – the police may turn to either blood or urine. The decision about which to use is for the police officer to make, not the suspect.

Before you provide a specimen, the police must make a formal requirement for you to provide the sample. As part of that requirement, you must be warned about the consequences of failing to provide, i.e., that you can be charged for failing to provide. If that warning is not given then the prosecution are simply not permitted to rely on the result of their test no matter what it shows.

You are not entitled to speak to a solicitor before providing your breath, blood, or urine sample. If there happens to be a solicitor immediately available then police may permit you to speak to him; however, they are not obliged to allow that consultation. Refusing to provide because you want legal advice is not a defence to a charge of failing to provide.

Processing and Interviews at the Station

After conducting any evidential tests for alcohol, the police will continue processing the arrest and make a decision on charges. There are several possible paths forward at this stage:

If the evidence is inconclusive, you may be released from the station pending further investigation rather than being immediately charged. 

Alternatively, the police may charge you immediately and give you a date to attend court. Most people charged with drink driving will be released immediately; however, if you have a history of offending on bail, failing to attend court, etc then the police may hold you in custody and produce you before the next available court.

Once released from police custody, regardless of whether you have been officially charged yet or not, your next steps should focus on building the strongest possible defence against the charges. Having expert legal representation from an experienced solicitor from the earliest stages is critical. The next section will discuss how to construct your defence against a drink driving charge in the English legal system.

 

Section 3 – Building Your Defence Against the Charges

Constructing a robust defence is critical to avoiding the harshest penalties of a drink driving conviction. Challenging the prosecution’s evidence and procedures through an experienced solicitor can reveal opportunities to dispute the charges or mitigate sentencing. This section outlines key strategies and considerations when building your case.

Seeking Legal Advice from a Qualified Solicitor Immediately

Do not delay in instructing a qualified drink driving solicitor. Contact and consult with them at the earliest opportunity. Solicitors know your rights, guide interactions with police, and start building strategic defences immediately. They can assist at every stage of your case.

Potential Defence Strategies – Procedural Errors, Unreliable Testing

While the prosecution’s evidence may initially seem strong in a drink driving case, an experienced solicitor can often uncover flaws in either the testing processes or police procedures that undermine the validity of charges. Common strategies to challenge the prosecution’s basis for a conviction include:

  • Breathalysers can be affected by issues like radio frequency interference, temperature fluctuations, and improper calibration.
  • Blood samples can be contaminated by poor storage or tested inaccurately. 
  • Independent specialists can scrutinise testing procedures and data to identify issues.

Presenting proof of unreliable tests or police errors can help get charges dismissed.

Mitigating Factors That Could Reduce Penalties

If a conviction is deemed unavoidable, solicitors will also gather and present mitigating factors about the defendant and circumstances that may justify a lighter sentencing decision from the court. These include:

  • Long clean driving history
  • Strong community/family ties
  • Displaying remorse and pursuing rehabilitation
  • Seeking voluntary alcohol counselling
  • Severe employment or personal consequences

Solicitor Negotiation with Prosecutors, Evidence Collection

Even before the trial begins, solicitors leverage any evidence deficiencies to negotiate dismissal of charges or lesser penalties with the prosecution. At trial, they can compel the disclosure of full technical testing details and ask experts to justify and explain the results.

They also independently gather additional evidence and locate witnesses to corroborate defences. For example, solicitors may find witnesses who observed the stop circumstances, investigate the calibration status of devices used, or seek medical confirmation of health conditions.

Thorough preparation and evidentiary skills impact outcomes.

 

Section 4 – The Court Process 

If charged with a drink driving offence after release from police custody, your case will proceed to the court system. Understanding the typical court procedures, potential outcomes, and roles of the various parties at each hearing will help you navigate this complex process. Having strong legal counsel advocate for your rights and best interests throughout court proceedings is essential.

This section will provide an overview of the key phases and events when facing drink driving charges in court. While specific conventions vary between magistrates’ courts, crown courts, and geographical jurisdictions, some common elements apply to drink driving cases across the English court system. Gaining insight into the proceedings can help you make informed decisions when confronting the charges.

The major stages covered include:

  • First hearing in court
  • Trial 
  • Sentencing 

Let’s take a look at each of these in more depth.

First hearing

Shortly after you are charged, you will appear in court with your solicitor. You will enter a plea, identify issues for trial, deal with bail and disclosure of evidence, and fix a trial date.

Entering a Plea

Your solicitor will advise you on the strength of the evidence and likely sentence if you were to be convicted. The solicitor will explain your options and give you advice about whether he thinks you should plead guilty of not guilty. You solicitor will also answer any questions you have to assist you in reaching a decision.

Setting a Trial Date

The court will fix a trial date. How long you wait depends greatly on how busy the court is and it can vary significantly between different areas. Most magistrates’ courts will hear your trial within three months, but some are fixing trial more than six months away.

Addressing Bail

The court will decide whether to impose, continue, alter, or revoke any conditions of your bail release, such as surrendering your passport or weekly police reporting. Arguments for less restrictive bail terms can be made.

Disclosure Requests

Your solicitor will file formal requests for the prosecution to disclose all evidence, such as recordings, documents, standard operating procedures, device maintenance records, and credentials of operators. This enables scrutiny of the strength of the prosecution’s case.

Adjournments

If there are outstanding items, like awaiting disclosure evidence from the prosecution, your solicitor may request the court adjourn the hearing to allow for case preparation time before entering a plea.

Trial 

If a pre-trial resolution is not achieved, three primary outcomes can result from the full trial:

Guilty Plea

After reviewing the full evidence disclosure, you may opt to change your plea to guilty. Your solicitor would then present mitigating factors about your character, rehabilitation efforts, and circumstances to help reduce sentencing severity.

Not Guilty Plea

Maintaining innocence by pleading not guilty forces the prosecution to prove their case. Your solicitor will rigorously challenge the validity of evidence and testimony through questioning.

Dropped Charges

If your solicitor successfully raises doubts regarding the quality and veracity of the evidence, the prosecution may discontinue the charges rather than risk an acquittal at trial.

Your solicitor will advise on the best approach once the complete evidence picture emerges.

Sentencing 

If convicted, punishment severity will depend on mitigating factors and sentencing guidelines:

Mitigating Factors

Your solicitor will seek to portray your character positively, like charity work, the absence of prior offences, taking rehabilitation steps, and the severe collateral employment or family consequences of a ban.

Sentencing Guidelines

Your solicitor will passionately argue for the least punitive, reasonable sentence permissible given the facts of the case and the assessment of the particular judge.

Navigating the court process presents many strategic decisions and complex proceedings. Having an experienced solicitor guide you through administrative hearings, pre-trial meetings, the trial itself, and sentencing is invaluable. They will advocate tirelessly for optimal outcomes at each stage while advising you of risks and options. With wise legal counsel, you can make informed choices when confronting the charges. Understanding the court protocols and leveraging all defences can help minimise the penalties if convicted while pursuing every opportunity for acquittal.

 

Section 5 – Conclusion

If you are facing drink driving charges, the prospect may seem daunting. However, by leveraging extensive legal experience and expertise from the earliest stages, you can maximise your chances of limiting penalties or even avoiding conviction entirely.

That’s why contacting Driving Solicitors immediately for representation and guidance after being arrested is critical. Our team specialises solely in driving offence cases like yours, allowing us to navigate the complex legal codes and procedures efficiently and effectively.

With Driving Solicitors defending your case, you can have confidence you are in qualified hands. We will provide robust representation while treating you with empathy and discretion. Our extensive record of achieving favourable outcomes stems from meticulous preparation, rigorous questioning, and compelling arguments on behalf of our clients.

To get started today with a free initial consultation, please reach out to Driving Solicitors online or call us at 020 3545 1000. We are committed to helping you through this difficult situation every step of the way.