Rasta’s drink driving challenge set to change police policy

A Rastafarian who refused to give blood after being stopped for drink-driving was allowed to appeal against his ban yesterday in a challenge that looks set to change fundamentally how the police handle such cases Lord Woolf, the Lord Chief Justice, sitting with Mr Justice Mackay, ruled that drink-drive suspects were allowed to choose, if they had a good reason, whether to provide blood or urine samples for double-checks on how much they had drunk. Woolf said that had been “a misunderstanding of the position”.

The appeal was won by Michael Joseph, a Rastafarian, who informed police officers that it was “against his religion” to give blood. His breath reading exceeded the statutory limit but was on the low side, and he was given the statutory option of having his reading double-checked by providing a further sample. He refused to give blood and was consequently convicted of drink-driving and received a three-year driving ban as he had a previous conviction.

According to David Wells, a criminal defence solicitor at West London firm Hayes-Burcombe & Co, who represented Joseph, police officers have been labouring under “a misapprehension”. “The police view seems to be, when the statutory option under the Road Traffic Act 1988 is to be exercised, they will immediately go to blood as their first option and won’t consider that they have a discretion as to whether blood or urine is appropriate,” he says. “In this case, Michael Joseph gave two specimens of breath which were both under 40 and 50 microgrammes and he then announced he couldn’t give blood because he was a Rastafarian. The custody officer’s response was that he was left with no option other than to charge, which we argued was incorrect. The court yesterday found the officer ought to have taken into accounts the comments made by Mr Joseph and considered a urine sample.”

Woolf allowed the appeal against the conviction. The magistrates had relied on the 1992 case of DPP v Warren. According to Wells, that ruling held that the decision as to whether specimens should be blood or urine under the 1988 act was up to the police. “It’s fairly clear from my experience that police officers seem to think that when the statutory option situation arises they ask for blood and only consider urine when there are medical reasons for not giving blood,” he said. “But that simply isn’t correct.”

Woolf said he believed that the cases where it can be shown that officers exercised their discretion unlawfully would be “very limited indeed”, but in this case it was.