Police officer wins ‘special reasons’ appeal against driving ban after jumping red light

A police officer who was banned from driving after jumping a red light and crashing into two cars while en route to an emergency call has successfully appealed against her 12-month disqualification.

The Sheriff Appeal Court quashed the sentence imposed and endorsed the former officer’s licence with five penalty appoints after ruling that it was a “momentary failing” which led to the offence and that “special reasons” ought to have been held established by the sheriff at first instance.

Sheriff Principal Craig Scott QC, sitting with Sheriff John Morris QC, heard that the appellant Natasha Watt had pleaded guilty to dangerous driving, in contravention of section 2 of the Road Traffic Act 1988.

Aberdeen Sheriff Court was told that the appellant and her colleague had received an emergency call and were the only officers asked to attend to provide assistance.

During the journey they received a “distress call” and heard a colleague scream over the radio, as the officers already in attendance at their intended destination were seeking urgent assistance.

In responding to the distress call the appellant, who had not been trained to use emergency response equipment on vehicles, activated the flashing blue lights on the police car but inadvertently failed to activate its siren.

The appellant was driving at approximately 15mph as she approached a “blind junction” and she slowed down to about 10mph as she passed through the red light, but two vehicles collided with the police car when she turned the corner.

Against that background, the sheriff rejected the proposition that special reasons existed as to why the appellant, who has since left the force, should not be made subject to the mandatory minimum 12-month disqualification period.

However, on appeal senior counsel for the appellant criticised the sheriff’s approach, arguing that in determining whether special reasons had been made out, the question the sheriff ought to have addressed was whether it was more likely than not that the emergency nature of the distress call to which the appellant had been ordered to respond and to which she and her colleague were the only officers responding (viz. the extenuating circumstances) was directly connected to the manoeuvre at the junction (viz. the commission of the offence).

Senior counsel submitted that, if the sheriff was so satisfied, she ought then to have considered whether the circumstances were such that the court ought properly to take them into account.

It was said that the appellant had found herself at the heart of a situation imbued with great urgency and it was reasonable to infer that the appellant must have feared for the safety of the police colleague who had summoned her assistance and therefore undertook a dangerous manoeuvre, but omitted to press a second button which would have activated the vehicle’s siren.

The sheriff’s reliance upon the fact that the appellant was not an authorised emergency driver was also criticised by senior counsel, who argued that what mattered was the driver’s actual conduct and the circumstances giving rise to that conduct.

It was submitted that the sheriff had failed to consider whether, but for the appellant having been ordered to respond to the distress call, the appellant would probably not have embarked upon the manoeuvre at the junction.

The appeal sheriffs observed that the sheriff placed “much weight” on the fact that the appellant was not an accredited emergency driver, which was an “irrelevant factor”.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Sheriff Principal Scott said: “We agree with senior counsel for the appellant’s submission to the effect that what properly fell to be considered by the court were the appellant’s actual conduct and the circumstances in which that conduct took place.

“In our view… the appellant’s manoeuvre through the junction was embarked upon and executed precisely because she was involved in an emergency journey in which it was, at the very least, important for the appellant and her vehicle to arrive at the locus from where her distressed police colleague had already summoned urgent assistance.

“On the factual matrix presented to the court and in light of the observations set out in the various authorities we have reached the conclusion that the sheriff’s approach to the matter cannot be supported.

“For our part, we are satisfied that the appellant would probably not have entered the junction in the face of a red light were it not for the emergency nature of the mission she was undertaking. In other words, the extenuating circumstances generated by the emergency were, to our mind, unquestionably connected to the commission of the offence.

“Whilst the appellant did, indeed, plead guilty to a charge of driving dangerously, it was a momentary failing on the part of the appellant which created that offence. It may have been unfortunate that the appellant overlooked to activate the vehicle’s siren but in driving as she did she had in mind the safety of other road users; she activated the vehicle’s blue lights and significantly reduced the speed of the vehicle.

“Against that background, it is, in our opinion, eminently open to this court to determine that special reasons ought to have been held established by the sheriff. That being so, we have quashed the disqualification imposed at first instance.”

The appeal sheriffs decided that the appellant’s licence should be endorsed with five penalty points.

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