You’re nicked!

Joseph Bulmer

ON the day police and local councils launched their seasonal drink-drive awareness campaign, Gazette reporter Andy Keeble met with police to discover what lies in wait for those who mix alcohol and motoring.

DRIVING to work on a particularly cold December morning, I blast up the heating, crank up Radio Five Live and give little thought to how fortunate I am not to be queuing for the number 21 bus.

Being able to drive the daily commute, pop to the shops or get to football training is something that I admit to taking for granted.

It’s hard to imagine life without a car; but after two long deep breaths into the Lion Intoxilyzer 6000 at Barnstaple Police Station, the possibility of a 12-month driving ban hits me like double vodka over breakfast.

Thankfully, I haven’t been drinking but for the purposes of journalistic investigation, I’ve agreed to throw myself to the mercy of the police custody team to discover what it’s like to become a convicted drink driver.

Within minutes of being hauled in front of custody Sergeant Gary Matthews, I quickly discover it’s not an experience I’d care to repeat.

Whether you’re an 18-year-old lad or an 88-year-old lady, if you provide a positive roadside breath test, you’ll be taken into police custody in handcuffs.

The procedure is only the beginning of a terrifying experience that I found chipped away at my sense of control, dignity and self-respect.

Sgt Matthews takes down my details, explains my rights and confiscates any personal belongings including my tie and belt. If I don’t comply – or if he feels I may attempt to injure myself – he’s within his rights to remove my clothes and issue me with a paper suit.

I answer his questions politely and promptly but Sgt Matthews sees three or four people like me a week and he isn’t in the mood to exchange pleasantries.

I sign the electronic form that affirms my reluctant induction into the police “system” and am led into a separate room and asked to provide two breath specimens that will be used as evidence.

I know I haven’t been drinking but it doesn’t stop the sense of dread from intensifying. The legal limit is 35micrograms of alcohol in 100millilitres of breath and a reading of 40micrograms or above will result in a charge.

For some people that could be as little as a pint of beer while for others it could be two-three pints depending on how well the body deals with alcohol in the system.

“It’s different for everyone,” said Alison Baker, who runs drink-drive awareness courses for offenders.

“It’s not an exact science, but a typical person will lose 8-10micrograms per hour so on average it takes around 10 hours to get rid of three pints.

“The bottom line is that you can’t beat the machine – it’s 100 per cent accurate.”

The machine spits out a negative reading but the experience continues as I’m marched into a cell to await further intrusion in the form of DNA testing, fingerprinting and a custody photograph.

As the door slams shut, Motor Patrol Constable Mark Goulding explains that it’s here that the reality of the situation kicks in for most people.

“When people are brought into custody they are often still under the effects of alcohol but when they start sobering up in an 8x6ft cell the reality of the situation soon kicks in,” he said.

“Many people on drink-drive charges are not used to police contact or have never been in trouble before. More often than not, it’s middle-aged people who are set in their ways – people who have had a few drinks at the pub and have made the same short route home 200 times without ever being caught.

“It can happen to anyone, anytime and many people who drive the morning after drinking do not realise that they could be still over the limit.”

So-called “morning after” offenders account for 18 per cent of all drink-drive offences in Devon. In 2009, a total of 13,714 breath tests were carried out by officers in Devon and Cornwall, with 2,574 motorists giving positive breath tests.

“Anyone who consumes alcohol and drives is at risk,” adds MPC Goulding. “They don’t even have to be on a road – they can be arrested in any public place including bridal ways and pub car parks, even if they’re riding a bike or an electric scooter.”

The knock-on effects of drinking and driving reach far beyond a night in the cells.

A conviction will result in a criminal record for life, a minimum 12-month driving ban, court costs and victim surcharge. Depending on the offence it could also mean a fine of up to �5,000, community service or up to six months in prison.

But as Alison explains, the effects on an offender’s personal life can be even more devastating.

“The realities of life without a driving licence can be difficult to bear; some people lose everything,” she said.

“Through the courses that I run, I’ve met people who have lost their businesses because they’re unable to drive. They struggle to pay their mortgage, lose their home, their wife walks out and takes the kids – I know at least one businessman who ended up in a hostel.”

Alison, who has run courses for Devon County Council for 19 years, said that a criminal record could have “massive ramifications”.

“When you are able to drive again, your insurance premiums can go up by up to 50 per cent and most hire car firms will not let you hire a car for five years,” she said.

“Most job applications will ask you to declare a criminal record and you could find that trying to foster children or applying for a visa to places like America and Australia is a long and expensive process.

“You may not be able to hold a shotgun or fire arms licence and a record could result in having to step down from seats on the local council or board of school governors.”

“There is also a real stigma and sense of shame attached to drink-driving convictions; some people find it difficult to live with the guilt of having committed an offence.”

When the cell door opens again, I’m herded into a small room to undergo the humiliating task of providing a DNA swab, fingerprints and a mug shot.

I’m told that if I was actually being charged with drink-driving, the intensely personal sample would soon be joining a national database and scanned for “forensic hits” against unsolved crimes in the UK and sometimes around the world.

In the final chapter of the whole disorientating process, I’m led along a corridor, through several doors and up a flight of stairs. I emerge from the belly of the police station and find myself standing in the dock at North Devon Magistrates’ Court.

Thankfully, this is the end of the ordeal for me, but I’m now only too aware that for drink-driving offenders, this is only really the beginning.