Drink driving is one of the most common criminal offences before the NSW courts.
Many people charged with drink driving will wish to plead guilty and get it over with, but won’t have the financial resources to hire a lawyer.
They may want to have the disqualification period reduced down to the minimum (eg 6 months for mid-range p.c.a., first offence) or to avoid a conviction and licence disqualification altogether by seeking to persuade the Magistrate to grant what’s known as a ‘section 10 dismissal or conditional release order’.
Either way, we’ve compiled our top-ten tips for those who wish to represent themselves when pleading guilty to drink driving.
The first few tips are about preparation, which is vitally important if you’re after the best possible result.
1. Consider enrolling in a traffic offender program
Traffic Offender Intervention Programs (TOIPs) are run by PCYCs and other organisations throughout NSW.
They consist of a series of sessions which seek to educate drivers about the risks of driving dangerously, including drink driving.
They are usually conducted one night per week for six or eight weeks.
However, a number of intensive programs are also available which run for one or two weekends.
After you have completed the program, the convenor will normally fax a letter of completion to the court.
Completing a traffic offender program will show to the court that you have taken positive steps to address your conduct, and can result in a more lenient penalty.
2. Obtain up to three character references
Good character references can also assist by showing that you have accepted responsibility and admitted your conduct to those who are important to you.
Character references can be obtained from any reputable adult who knows you well and can vouch for your good character – for example, your employer, a religious leader or a family friend.
They should include a brief summary about the person and their background, as well as a description about how they know you and how long they have known you for, before detailing any evidence of your good character.
The person writing the letter should always include a sentence affirming that they are aware that you are pleading guilty to drink driving, which is a serious offence.
References should be signed and dated, and the original should be handed-up to the court.
We have written a character reference guide which you can access here.
3. Consider writing a letter of apology
Remorse can often affect the type of penalty imposed by the court if you choose to plead guilty.
If you’re considering pleading guilty, you may wish to write an apology letter to the court – if so you may wish to take a look at our apology letter guide here.
Alternatively, you can make a statement in court about the fact that you are genuinely sorry for your conduct.
It’s often also a good idea to also recognise the seriousness of your actions – e.g. the fact that you may have harmed other road users by drink driving.
4. Consider counselling if appropriate
Everyone goes through a rough patch at some point in their life, and sometimes drink driving may be tied to personal problems or alcohol abuse.
If this is the case, it may be a good opportunity to seek counselling to address these issues.
Counselling may help the Magistrate to look upon you favourably, particularly if your counsellor or psychologist is prepared to write a letter explaining your situation and the steps you are taking to address any underlying issues.
Above all, seeking counselling will show the court that you are doing something to resolve your problems, which in-turn reduces your likelihood of reoffending – a factor that the court can take into account.
5. Know about the Alcohol Interlock Program
One way by which you can potentially reduce your disqualification period is by offering to participate in the alcohol interlock program.
This essentially involves you being disqualified for a reduced period of time, followed by a period during which you will need to have a breathalyser fitted to your car.
The breathalyser requires you to provide a breath sample every time you use your car, and at random points along the journey.
If alcohol is detected, the car will not start.
The court will decide whether you are eligible for the program, but showing that you are willing to participate can be beneficial if you want to get your licence back sooner.
However, you should be aware that the program can be quite costly as you will have to pay the cost of purchasing the device and having it fitted and monitored.
So it’s best to do your own research about the costs before you offer to participate.
6. Prepare an outline of what to say
At some point, the magistrate will ask you if you have anything to say in court.
This is your chance to tell your side of the story in the most positive light possible.
You should start off by telling the magistrate whether you wish to plead guilty or not guilty.
The most important thing is to accept full responsibility and not make any excuses for your dangerous conduct.
You may also wish to talk about the fact that you are remorseful for your conduct.
You can, however, give some background information about your personal circumstances e.g. your employment, income, living arrangements and any the difficulties you faced in the lead-up to the offence.
You should advise the court about your need for a licence e.g. why you need a licence for work purposes, and/or or because you or a family member is suffering from a medical condition and you need a car to attend appointments, and/or to transport children or dependants etc.
You may wish to also consider talking about the offence itself – for example, if you chose to drink and drive because of an emergency or some other good reason, but be careful not to make excuses for your conduct or downplay its seriousness.
If you are seeking to avoid a conviction and disqualification altogether by getting what’s known as a ‘section 10 dismissal or conditional release order’, you may wish to inform the court about how a criminal conviction or a loss of licence could impact upon your current employment or future career-path.
7. Plead guilty on the first court date (even if you need to adjourn to complete the traffic offender program)
If you want to plead guilty, it’s important to do so on the first court date.
This will show the court that you have accepted responsibility for your actions at the earliest opportunity, which is important in demonstrating contrition.
Entering an early guilty plea entitles you to a sentencing ‘discount’, which can make a difference in terms of your disqualification period and even help to persuade the Magistrate to grant you a non conviction order.
8. Dress respectfully for court
It’s important to give a good impression when you stand before a Magistrate, so it’s important to dress appropriately.
If possible, wear a suit or business/office attire.
If you don’t own any appropriate clothing, you may wish to consider borrowing something from a friend or family member.
Otherwise, dress as conservatively as possible.
9. Arrive at court early
Going to court can be a nerve-wracking experience, especially if it’s your first time.
So it’s important to get to court with plenty of time to spare before your scheduled appearance.
You should find out what time the courthouse opens by contacting the court registry (office) before your court date.
Court opening times are generally 9am.
When you get to court, have a look on the noticeboard to see if a list of cases has been posted.
If so, the designated courtroom for your case will be printed beside your name.
If not, ask someone from the court registry.
Some courts will have a registration desk.
If so, attend that desk and inform the court officer of your name and whether you wish to plead guilty or not guilty.
Enter the courtroom when it opens and listen to how the lawyers run their cases – this can give you some helpful hints about how to present your own case.
Be patient as you may have to wait hours before your name is called.
10. Be respectful to the magistrate
The Magistrate is the person that holds the key to a good result in your case, so it’s vital to always be respectful when he or she is in court.
Try not to talk while in the courtroom, do not take drinks or newspapers into the courtroom and pay attention to the magistrate whilst they are speaking – even during cases before yours.
By just listening, you can gain invaluable hints about the particular Magistrate’s likes and dislikes – and you can amend what you are going to say accordingly.
Always address the Magistrate as ‘Your Honour’ and never interrupt them, nor get into a discussion let alone argument with them.
The Magistrate may appear upset or annoyed and say things that you do not agree with, but it’s important to keep your cool and refrain from arguing.
Finally, if you’re unhappy with the result, you can always lodge an appeal – which can be done up to 28 days after final court date.
Above all, good luck – and remember that our experienced, specialist traffic lawyers are here to provide you with a free consultation if you wish to have one.