DRINK drivers in Yorkshire are likely to have evaded prosecution because it has taken so long to take them into custody they were ultimately recorded as being under the legal limit.
The closure of cells at Northallerton Police Station in North Yorkshire has meant it has sometimes taken more than two hours from an initial roadside breathalyser test to a second definitive test in custody which is required for a prosecution to go ahead.
Since the trial closure of the custody suite began in late September nearly a quarter of those arrested for drink driving in the Hambleton and Richmondshire areas after positive roadside tests subsequently recorded readings below the limit.
The vast majority have had to be transported to Harrogate police station, often entailing a significantly longer journey than to Northallerton and prompting warnings from the Police Federation that “cuts have consequences”.
In one case, a driver initially recorded at one and a half times the legal limit was eventually recorded at below the limit after it took more than two hours to transport them to Harrogate and complete the second test.
North Yorkshire’s Tory police and crime commissioner, Julia Mulligan, who agreed the closure, said she had raised concerns with the force over the impact on drink driving but denied budget cuts were to blame.
The issue was recognised in the weeks after the closure began at which point a handful of cases had been flagged. The force told custody suites elsewhere to prioritise any drink drivers brought in from Hambleton and Richmondshire and officers were also told potential offenders could be taken to stations in neighbouring Cleveland and Durham force areas, at Middlesbrough and Darlington, if they could get there quicker.
Responding to a Freedom of Information Request, North Yorkshire Police could not say how many, if any, cases were taken outside the force area for processing. But figures provided showed 12 drivers out of 56 arrested for failing a roadside test between 26 September last year, when the cells closed, to 14 February were subsequently recorded as below the limit by the time they were taken into custody.
North Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Mike Stubbs said: “The force management are trying to mitigate the effects of the closure but the vast rural expanse of North Yorkshire makes us almost unique in terms of the obstacles that have to be overcome. The funding that the force receives has to reflect the difficulties of policing the largest geographic county in England. The cuts made by Government in recent years mean that it simply does not do that.
“Cuts do have consequences, and it is only now that some of the effects are really being seen.
“Our members find it disheartening. They’ve managed to apprehend somebody who is over the limit, and a potential danger to others, but there is no custody suite nearby and they have to travel a long way, by which time that person is under the limit.”
He added: “You either don’t have the custody suites and you end up with situations like this, or you don’t have the cops to make the arrests in the first place. That is the stark choice facing North Yorkshire Police.”
Julia Mulligan said the trial closure was not in direct relation to budget cuts but said the Northallerton cells needed an investment of around £450,000 to upgrade facilities to an acceptable standard.
She said the move was prompted by a decline, by a third, in the number of people being taken to Northallerton, due to fewer people being detained following arrest.
Ms Mulligan also pointed to the development of a new force HQ at Alverton Court in the centre of the town where local policing teams could be based, though the facility will not include a custody suite.
She said: “This would make a significant on-going saving, as well as a capital receipt from the sale of the current police station itself.
“I therefore think the pilot is sensible, as there are sound reasons for it. However, it is a pilot and I share people’s concerns about drink driving, as well as a number of other issues. Indeed, some time ago I expressed my concerns to the force and I will be looking in detail at the full results.”
Chief Inspector Allan Wescott, of North Yorkshire Police, said many factors influenced alcohol readings and the way cases were dealt with by police.
“For example, cases involving a marginal reading may well result in the same outcome regardless of where the individual is processed. Also, everyone’s body is different so everyone’s alcohol blood levels change at different rates… and some people’s readings can actually increase over time. It is therefore impossible to draw meaningful trends from isolated figures alone. During the trial closure of Northallerton custody, we are collating and closely monitoring a wealth of information, taking many different factors into account on a case-by-case basis. We’re also encouraging feedback from our employees. All this information will be considered before any decisions around Northallerton custody are made.”