As a Cat Lay Dying, He Drove Drunk to a Vet, But Court Finds Him Guilty of DUI Anyway
FlaglerLive | September 19, 2013
It was 1 a.m. that morning. Christopher Brooks, 37 at the time, was traveling on I-75 near Hillsborough Avenue in Tampa, going 84 in a 55. A Hillsborough County Sheriff’s deputy watched him veer across three lanes toward an exit ramp, and conducted a traffic stop.
Brooks, it turns out, was drunk. And he had a cat with him. The cat was sober, but very sick. Of that, in a moment.
The deputy conducted field sobriety tests on Brooks and confirmed that he was drunk. It was his third drunk driving arrest in 10 years. He was charged with felony DUI, a third-degree felony that carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
At trial, Brooks did not deny that he was driving drunk. But he said he had an excuse: his friend’s cat was sick. He was the only man available to take the poor cat to an all-night veterinarian. He was compelled to take the highway. And to speed to get the little thing to the vet.
The cat was, in fact, very ill. The cat’s owner and two of his acquaintances were passengers in Brooks’s car. And there was a veterinary clinic near where Brooks was arrested, though the record doesn’t establish whether the clinic was actually open all night. One of the passengers was giving Brooks directions to the clinic when the deputy stopped the vehicle.
While the deputy was going through the field sobriety test, one of the passengers pleaded with the deputy: “My cat is fixing to die!”
And the cat did die. Right there by the side of the road, as Brooks was being field-tested for drunk driving.
At any rate, a jury did not buy Brooks’s defense and found him guilty of felony DUI. Brooks appealed.
The Florida Supreme Court has never ruled on a drunk driving case mitigated by a dying cat. The closest thing to a similar case goes back to a 1992 instance when a man was charged with DUI while driving on a suspended license. The man explained that his girlfriend was his designated driver, but that she abandoned him in the middle of a busy highway, requiring him to take the reins of the car and pull it over. A cop found him idling, slumped over, his foot on the break. He hadn’t pulled over. He had fallen asleep at the light, waiting for the light to change.A trial court found him guilty, but an appeal court reversed, agreeing that the man’s decision to at least attempt to drive the car off the busy road—which led him to take the wheel—was a better decision than leaving the car where it could be rear-ended, triggering far more dangerous circumstances than the drunk man’s brief risk of driving the car off the road. In another case, a drunkard was let off his DUI charge when he explained that he merely took refuge in his car to evade a tropical storm, and went to sleep. Other examples abound, but all involving human beings only.
In Brooks’s case—the incident unfolded the morning of Oct. 30, 2010—it was up to an appeal court to break new ground on the “defense of necessity” involving a cat.
On Wednesday, a unanimous three-judge panel of the Second District Court of Appeal upheld the jury’s verdict, denying Brooks’s claim that exigent circumstances required him to speed while drunk. Even if a cat was dying in his car.
“Of course, where it appears that reasonable alternatives to driving under the influence are available to address a claimed emergency, courts have held that the necessity defense is not available,” Judge Douglas Wallace, a 2003 appointee of Gov. Jeb Bush, wrote for the court.
But to be afforded a “defense of necessity,” Brooks would have had to submit evidence on five counts: that he reasonably believed that his action was necessary to avoid an imminent threat of danger or serious bodily injury to himself or others, that he did not intentionally or recklessly place himself in a situation in which it would be probable that he would be forced to choose the criminal conduct, that there were no other adequate means to avoid the threatened harm except the criminal conduct, that the harm sought to be avoided was more egregious than the criminal conduct perpetrated to avoid it, and that he ceased the criminal conduct as soon as the necessity or apparent necessity for it ended.
The court made a value judgment in two of the five counts: the imminent danger of bodily harm existed, but not to a human being. A cat, in other words, did not count. And danger the harm to be avoided—the death of the cat—was not more egregious than driving drunk.
“We do not interpret the phrase ‘or others’ as applying to animals,” the court ruled. “Although Mr. Brooks’ wish to obtain treatment for the ailing feline is understandable, the elements of the defense and the plain language of the jury instruction compel us to the conclusion that a claim of necessity is not available as a defense to a DUI charge in Florida when the asserted emergency involves the threat of harm to an animal instead of a person.”
The name of the late cat is not known.