'They are not learning', says judge

Last updated 05:00 08/12/2012
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ROBERT CHARLES
Judge Allan Roberts

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Judge Allan Roberts can testify to the way attitudes towards drink-driving have changed in 30 years.

The New Plymouth District Court judge sentences dozens of drink-drivers each week.

Once they were told they were unlucky. Today they are called bloody idiots.

Judge Roberts well recalls the time when the public took a less serious view of drink-driving.

"Don't think for one moment that I'm sitting here taking the moral high ground - I was a person, too, who chanced their arm in my younger days," the judge says.

But today his decisions in court mirror the community condemnation of drink-drivers, particularly those who keep on doing it.

He has seen many in his courtroom during six years as a district court judge. He believes repeat drink-drivers outnumber the first-time offenders, and that the overall rate of drink-driving is levelling out rather than declining.

"The figures suggest that there is a real problem with the recidivists - a real problem," Judge Roberts, who has worked within the judicial system for about 45 years, primarily as a defence lawyer, says.

"It doesn't seem to me that anyone is truly listening to the messages that are being literally trumpeted, particularly by the police, and there are aggressive police here."

The serious repeat offenders he saw were often people who were failing to deal with addiction problems. A significant number get one conviction and do not make the same mistake again.

But those with alcohol and drug issues, "truly irresponsible people", posed a major threat.

"It has got to be a concern if people like that are on the road because they compromise the health and safety of everyone else, including themselves.

"It is the older males and females, the entrenched drinkers, the alcoholics. The person who has been exposed to alcohol abuse over a long period of time, they are not learning.

"Seeing these people, just hearing their names called, I can look at them and say ‘Yeah, you are back for drinking booze and driving a car again'."

Judge Roberts, who is known for his descriptive, if not colourful exchanges, with offenders, says because of their problems with addiction they didn't fully appreciate the danger they were putting themselves and others in.

"They think that they are bulletproof.

"That's what liquor does to you, it creates an artificial confidence."

The addiction to alcohol was at the root of their offending, he says.

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"The intelligent individual who gets buckled once, you can expect them to learn from it - but it's the people who have got problems who go out and do it again knowing the consequences, they can't help themselves."

The message would not get through until they faced up to their addiction.

"They will never hear it," he says.

Judge Roberts has a reputation for imposing tough penalties on recidivist drink-drivers.

Last year he jailed one for eight months - and also confiscated his car. The vehicle was jointly owned by the man and his partner, and she had said the decision would cause her hardship.

"I'm not going to roll over in my bed worried about that. I made my decision. If someone doesn't like it there is another court to go to," he says.

But his judgment was an indication of his lack of empathy for people who tolerate their partner or spouse drinking and driving.

"Somehow the message has got to get through - that there are repercussions and from time to time they will be visited on you."

A short time after his release from jail the man was again caught drunk behind the wheel. He was convicted of drink-driving for a fifth time and jailed for another year.

Alcohol-related offending dominates the cases which come before Judge Roberts and the drink-drivers have frequently offended in other areas.

The judge also questioned how genuine many repeat drink-drivers were when they came before him to express remorse, suggesting they were more sorry for being caught than for being drunk.

"People are only remorseful when facing the consequences," he says. Many of these people have drink addictions and will not acknowledge the fact that when they drink their "responsibility flies out the other window".

Conversely, many people with alcohol addictions faced up to their problems.

Some say they are sorry, some have difficulty explaining the quantity of their drinks.

The judge sees many drink-drivers who have only had "a couple".

"Maybe they are talking about buckets not glasses. Sometimes I tell them that's just rubbish.

"I just know it's a fact of life. No-one, including me, is honest when taxed about the amount of liquor we've taken."

Judge Roberts says the law has enough powers to adequately deal with serious repeat offenders.

"I can't speak from the police perspective but, from mine, I think that the law is adequate.

"I would probably just look at increasing the penalty.

"Imprisonment is not going to cure anyone but it's going to get them off the roadway for a very long time," he says.

This week, the courts in Hawera and New Plymouth dealt with 28 drink-drivers - including 11 repeat offenders.

DON'T GET TAGGED FOR LIFE

He calls them a steady flow.

Sergeant Shane Hurliman is talking about drink-drivers, and as head of New Plymouth's Traffic and Alcohol Group (Tag) he should know. He meets more than his fair share of drivers who have had one, and in many cases, many, too many.

Tag is a specialist police unit on the front line in the battle against drink-drivers.

The group runs four checkpoints a shift, stopping up to 9000 drivers a month.

But despite the constant police warnings, and presence, the steady flow of drink-drivers continues.

"The recidivist offenders are causing a major concern at the moment," he says.

Of the 778 people convicted for drink-driving in the year ended June 30 2012, 172 had already been convicted of the offence three times.

A total of 249 blew more than twice the legal breath alcohol level of 400 micrograms per litre of breath and 35 had levels over 1000mcg. The worst was 1554mcg.

Mr Hurliman said the number of drivers caught behind the wheel with breath alcohol readings of more than 1000mcg was rising.

"To blow over 400 micrograms the average person would have to drink quite a significant amount of alcohol. When they are blowing that sort of level they know that they are not able to drive safely."

This week a 43-year-old Waitara man, who already had 10 convictions for driving drunk, recorded a breath alcohol level of 1190mcg when he was stopped by an early-afternoon patrol.

Mr Hurliman suspects the man was over the limit when he woke up that morning.

It would take "one hellish drinking session" to reach that level.

Police and agencies combating the problems caused by alcohol abuse are encouraging families to help them keep drunks off the road.

That's one reason why police and the Daily News offered recidivist drink-drivers a subsidised subscription to the newspaper so they could read the stories and columns which make up our None for the Road campaign.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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