Police in Kent have begun using a ‘virtual court’ in an attempt to have cases dealt with more swiftly. So far two people have been dealt with under the scheme since its launch at the beginning of the month. Under the plan, anyone arrested on suspicion of drink driving has their case heard at North Kent police station, which is connected to Medway Magistrates’ Court by video link. This means that motorists who plead guilty can be disqualified on the same day as arrest. It is usually the case that the first court appearance is within 15 days of the date of arrest. Individuals charged with drink driving related offences are then bailed to attend the Magistrates Court on the given date and are still permitted to drive during that period. Virtual courts were first used in a pilot scheme in south London last year, which linked Charing Cross Police Station with Camberwell Green Magistrates’ Court.
But is this really a just solution? No one would argue that cases should be dealt with swiftly would they?
The difficulty here is that whilst the police may have very good evidence that the motorist had been driving i.e. if the officer had followed the motorist, that is not the only thing the police have to show in order to prove their case. Things are not as open and shut as they might first appear. We cannot allow an attitude to take hold that all motorists are ‘banged to rights’ the moment they are pulled over by the police. They are not. The police still need to get other things right first.
The prosecution actually has to adduce admissible evidence in court that the proportion of alcohol in the motorist’s breath (or blood or urine) was in excess of the prescribed limit. If they cannot do that then the motorist cannot be guilty of any offence. Clearly, a person can only be guilty of drink driving if there is evidence of the motorist driving (on a road) and that they were doing so whilst over the prescribed drink drive limit. In order to obtain evidence that a motorist is over the limit the police require the motorist to provide two specimens of breath for analysis using a type approved machine at the police station. The police have to be thoroughly trained before being able to operate these devices. The devices themselves are only as reliable as the person operating them and can malfunction like any other electrical device.
What is the significance of this?
Suppose it is you in the police station and the police say that you were driving whilst over the legal limit. What if you do not believe this to be the case? What if you are sure that you had not had as much to drink as the police said you had? What if you believe the breath testing device must have malfunctioned or was operated incorrectly?
You would want to talk to a solicitor wouldn’t you? You would want to ask if your concerns are justified. Is there going to be a dramatic increase in the number of solicitors available to advise at the police station? We doubt it. You might wish to instruct an expert toxicologist to consider the breath alcohol reading in more detail. We would wish anyone seeking to find a toxicologist at a moments notice the best of luck.
The difficulty is that the motorist is going to be told that their case will be dealt with that day and they will have to make a decision about what to do. If you plead not guilty originally and then change your plea to guilty further down the line then the court will not reduce any sentence by as much as they would have done had you pleaded guilty at the first court hearing. But if you plead guilty then that is itgame over. The court is going to be extremely reluctant to set aside any such plea of guilty in cases such as these. So you need to be properly advised about the strength of the evidence and what you should do.
So what is the solution?
The police will always need to remember that drink driving cases are not as straightforward or as open and shut as they might at first appear. There are obligations on them to obtain evidence about all of the elements of the offence and to do this they must carry out specific procedures using highly technical instruments. It is simply not the case that every motorist is ‘banged to rights’ from the start. If these cases are dealt with in this way – if they are seen as open and shut cases that the motorist can do nothing about – then there is a real risk the police will not focus on obtaining all of the evidence necessary and carry out the procedures correctly.
It is only right that motorists have the opportunity to speak with a solicitor and discuss any concerns they may have about the evidence before being asked to enter their plea. This too will take time. There is an old saying that justice delayed is justice denied. But in these types of cases, where nothing is ever as straightforward as it seems, a delay, to consider the evidence and see if indeed the police have obtained all the evidence and complied with the procedures, may actually have the opposite result. BOLA TANGKAS