Drug Driving Campaign
A drug driving campaign in Cambridgeshire yielded successful (and at the same time, disturbing) results after a motorist was (thankfully) caught whilst driving 100x over the legal drug driving limit for ecstasy as reported online by Cambridge News . The resulting conviction was just one brought as a result of a campaign from January to March this year but it raises an interesting question in respect of the drug driving penalty guidelines.
The campaign was conducted by officers in the road policing unit which saw 29 roadside drug tests being issued with 18 of them testing positive.
This particular motorist was stopped on Bourges Boulevard on 10 January 2016 and a roadside breath test initially indicated the suspect to be under the influence of cocaine which resulted in his immediate arrest.
The Drug Driving Limit & Procedure
Before drug driving legislation came into force in March 2015, cases were dealt with as an investigation into whether a motorist was “driving whilst unfit through drink or drugs”. When stopped, if an officer suspected a driver was unfit then they would be asked to undertake a series of “impairment tests” before being taken to the police station to provide a blood or urine sample to test for the presence of drugs. If a drug was found in the system, the Prosecution was required to not only prove that the defendant’s driving was impaired, but it also had to be as a direct result of the drug in the system. This historically proved problematic for the Prosecution as they struggled to find a definitive link between the impairment and the drug that could not be challenged . This led to a significant number of prosecutions failing at trial stage.
In an effort to streamline the procedure and bring it more in line with how drink drivers are dealt with, new legislation devised a list of “controlled substances” for the purposes of drug driving legislation by way of the Drug Driving (Specified limits) (England and Wales) Regulations 2014. “Drugalysers” were also distributed to allow officers to conduct a quick saliva test to detect these drugs prior to an arrest, much in the same way that breathalyser are used for those suspected of drink driving. This eliminated the need to conduct impairment tests, or in fact even prove that impairment existed. The mere presence of controlled drug above the legal limit is now enough to constitute an offence.
After testing positive for a controlled substance, a suspect must then be taken into custody and required to provide a sample of either blood or urine for further analysis. This is to ensure that the results are as accurate as possible given that a saliva test is only used as an initial indication of the presence of a controlled substance.
The limits for illegal drugs is intentionally set extremely low but there are also levels set for prescribed medications to try and ensure that those taking drugs legally are not endangering the public and themselves by taking too much or taking the medication incorrectly.
Upon analysis, the sample taken in this particular case showed that the suspect was 100x over the limit for MDMA (which has its limit set at 10 microgrammes of MDMA per litre of blood/urine) in addition to being 10 times over the limit set for cocaine and benzoylecgonine (with limits set at 10 and 50 µg/L respectively).
Drug Driving Penalties: Our View
The defendant appeared at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on 01 April 2016 and pleaded guilty to driving whilst over the limit of a controlled drug in accordance with section 5A of the Road Traffic Act 1988 (a section which was brought into force on 02 March 2015).
Cambridge News reported that the defendant was jailed for 18 weeks and banned from driving for 5 years. Given that there is no new guidance for drug driving offences one must assume that the courts are still referring to the guidance issues for offences of being “unfit through drink or drugs” which does not consider the actual levels of a substance found in the body. The penalty imposed would suggest “evidence of a high level of impairment and presence of one or more aggravating factors” (ie. carrying passengers, driving in a busy area or by a school etc)
At present, it is arguable that the current guidelines that are seemingly still in place are insufficient as they do not take into account the level of the substance found in a person’s system. Each individual responds to the effects of drugs differently and whilst there may have been evidence to show severe impairment in this particular case; that is not to say that the same will apply in every case.
There may well be cases in the future that involve a blood sample proving a defendant to be 100x over the specified limit only have exhibited no signs of impairment at all and it begs the question: What is the most important factor? Should we be deciding punishment based on how much of a substance is in a motorist’s body or by the degree of impairment they exhibit (and thus the increased chance of harm)?
It is an interesting argument and one cannot consider the answer without reference to the guidance currently in place for driving whilst over the limit of alcohol. The court attaches more weight to the degree of excess in a person’s body than they do the level of impairment. I have dealt with countless cases where a motorist was stopped for something completely unrelated to their standard of driving (a light being out for example), only for them to be found at 3x the legal limit. This again relates to an individual’s tolerance to the substance used.
The current system, could potentially “reward” (or at least invoke perceived leniency) towards motorists who are found to be 100x over a drug limit as long as they were able to still drive to an acceptable standard and I would say that this is the incorrect approach.
Who is more culpable?
- The person who knowingly and excessively indulges in alcohol and then willingly gets into a car to drive; or
- The person who had half a pint and assumed they were OK to drive but ultimately displayed signs of impairment?
Subject A has one line of cocaine and drives their car. They ultimately crash causing injury to themselves and property damage to the house they crashed into. They are very marginally above the drug driving limit but have clearly displayed impairment in their driving.
Subject B has 3 grams of cocaine and drives their car. They have an uneventful journey until an officer notices that one of their headlights is out and decides to pull them over. Upon speaking to the driver, it becomes clear that they are under the influence of drugs. This person is found to be 50x over the limit.
Who should receive the higher penalty?
It is a point that could be debated at length and I suspect there are many out there who will adopt a “zero tolerance” stance on the issue. Whilst it is arguable that such a stance would be the safest to adopt, the UK are not quite at that stage yet and it will be interesting to see how sentencing towards drug drivers is developed over the coming months/years.
Need Help from a Specialist Drug Driving Lawyer?
Neil Sargeant is head of Olliers Motor Law having specialised solely in road traffic cases since 2008 . If you are facing a drug driving conviction then please give the team at Olliers Motor Law a call on 0808 168 0017 for free advice.