What to do if you’ve been charged with drink-driving

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Nick Titchener

Managing Partner

In Brief

Drink-driving is a serious offence, carrying penalties of possible imprisonment, an unlimited fine and a ban lasting at least a year. You can’t afford to go without proper legal representation if you’ve been charged with drink-driving.

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Drink-driving charges – why you need immediate legal advice

Although a drink-driving case can sometimes seem cut and dried, it’s always best to have a solicitor advising you, even if you’re intending to plead guilty. By arguing your case in court, they can help to reduce the impact of charges on your life. Here we’ll detail what a drink-driving charge means and what a solicitor can do to help.

What is drink-driving?

Simply put, drink-driving is the offence of driving – or attempting to drive – while being unfit to drive because of alcohol. Even in small amounts, alcohol affects reaction times, making driving while over the drink-driving limit extremely dangerous.

That limit currently stands at 80mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood or more than 35 micrograms per 100ml of breath – in England and Wales. In Scotland it is lower: 50mg of alcohol per 100ml of blood. In some countries, such as Sweden, Norway and Poland the limit is even lower at 20mg.

If you’re suspected of drink-driving, police officers will take a preliminary breath test at the roadside, using a breathalyser. A positive reading may mean you’re over the limit and you will be taken to the police station to be tested on specialist equipment. While there, you’ll be asked to provide two more breath samples. If the highest of these two readings is 40 or under, you won’t be prosecuted. However, if you record a reading of more than 40, you’ll be charged. The legal limit is 35, but there is discretion to charge or not for readings between 35-40.

Drink-driving scenarios – how much can you drink?

One difficulty with drink-driving is that different people can reach the limit by drinking less than others. Alcohol affects everyone differently and is dependent upon factors such as your weight, sex, age, stress levels and what else you’ve consumed.

Many people assume they’re no longer over the drink-drive limit the morning after consuming alcohol. However, alcohol can still be in your system many hours after your last drink, particularly if you had a lot to drink.

Other people think it’s permissible to drive a car a short distance (such as on your street) while over the drink-drive limit. This is not the case, although it can be a mitigating factor, which could result in a more lenient sentence.

You can even be charged for drink-driving without being inside a car. You merely have to be ‘in charge of a motor vehicle’, making any interaction with your car risky.

What happens when you’ve been charged with drink-driving?

You’ll be kept at the police station until you’re sober enough to go home, unless you record a breathalyser reading of more than 120, in which case you may be kept in a cell to attend court the next day. Otherwise, you’ll be bailed to appear at a magistrates’ court a few days later or released pending further investigation if the readings were unclear or unknown.

If you plead guilty, your licence will immediately be taken away from you and you’ll be disqualified from driving.

What penalties can you face for drink-driving?

The penalty you receive will depend upon various factors, including what your alcohol reading was, whether you had passengers in the car and if you had an accident while drink-driving. Any previous history of drink-driving or driving-related offences will also go against you. 

While you can be sent to prison, most first-time offenders are generally given a financial penalty, particularly if there are no aggravating factors that made the incident worse. The following are the maximum penalties for different drink-driving offences:

Being in charge of a vehicle while above the legal limit

  • Fine of up to £2,500
  • Up to three months’ imprisonment
  • Potential driving ban

Driving or attempting to drive while above the limit

  • Unlimited fine
  • Up to six months’ imprisonment
  • Driving ban for at least one year (three years if convicted twice in 10 years)

Causing death by careless driving when under the influence of drink

  • Unlimited fine
  • Life imprisonment
  • Minimum of a two-year driving ban
  • An extended driving test to get your licence back

It’s also an offence in itself if you fail to provide a specimen of breath for a breathalyser test, or if you refuse to provide blood or urine for analysis. You could receive up to six months’ in jail, an unlimited and a driving ban for a year.

Can you avoid getting a driving ban?

You may be able to reduce your ban (by a quarter) if you take a drink-drive rehabilitation scheme (DDRS) course. These courses are offered at the court’s discretion if you’re banned from driving for 12 months or more.

If you were in charge of a car while above the limit but didn’t actually drive it, there’s also a greater probability of avoiding a ban. Again, however, this is at the court’s discretion.

What other impacts do drink-driving charges have?

The impacts of drink-driving charges can be surprisingly far-reaching.

Of course, if there was a fatal or otherwise serious accident as a result of drink-driving, the consequences will be more distressing. Yet even if you’re stopped by the police without causing an accident, there could be repercussions that aren’t immediately apparent.

The obvious one is that a driving ban will probably cause you significant inconvenience. If you drive for work, your employer will see the drink-driving conviction on your licence and it’s likely that you’ll lose your job. Even if you don’t drive for a living though, employers can take a dim view of a conviction, while you’ll have to declare that conviction when applying for new jobs.

Whether you keep your licence or not, you can expect your car insurance costs to rise significantly. Depending upon the insurance company and the specific offence, you’ll have to declare the conviction to insurers for at least 3 years and possibly up to 11 years.

One consequence you may not expect is that a conviction for drink-driving makes travelling more complicated. Some countries might not let you in at all, while others, like the USA and Australia might make you go through a longer visa process.

What should you do if you’ve been charged with drink-driving?

The first step should always be to enlist the help of a specialist drink-driving solicitor as soon as possible. In the vast majority of cases, you’ll only be able to consult a solicitor after you’ve given your breath tests at the police station.

As with all crimes, pleading guilty early on in proceedings can reduce the penalties you face. If you have one present, a solicitor may recommend you plead guilty immediately after an over-the-limit breathalyser test result. This is another reason to seek legal representation as soon as you can.

A solicitor will detail the legal process after being charged, helping to prepare you for the possible outcomes and working to ensure the damage to your personal and professional lives is minimised.

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