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Crime & Courts

Court: Sick cat no excuse for Tampa man to drive drunk

By JIM SAUNDERS
The News Service of Florida

Published:   |   Updated: September 19, 2013 at 08:12 AM

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TALLAHASSEE — After a Hillsborough County sheriff’s deputy clocked him going 84 mph and veering across three lanes of traffic toward an Interstate 275 exit ramp, Christopher Brooks was arrested on a DUI charge.

But Brooks argued he had a legitimate reason: His friend’s cat was sick, and he was the only person available to take the pet to an all-night veterinary clinic.

A state appeals court Wednesday, however, swatted down Brooks’ attempt to use what is called a “defense of necessity.” The court said such a defense could be used, in certain circumstances, for people charged with driving under the influence — though those circumstances would involve people, not cats, being in danger of serious injuries.

“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,’’ a three-judge panel of the 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled.

The ruling stemmed from the early morning arrest Oct. 30, 2010, of Brooks, who was charged with third DUI within a 10-year period, according to the ruling. At trial, Brooks did not deny that he was driving under the influence, but offered the sick-cat defense.

“Although Mr. Brooks’ defense is unusual, he presented some evidence to support it,’’ said the appeals court opinion, written by Judge Douglas Wallace and joined by judges Morris Silberman and Craig Vilanti. “He was transporting a cat, and the cat was very ill. There is a veterinary clinic near the highway exit where the deputy stopped Mr. Brooks. The cat’s owner and two of his acquaintances were passengers in Mr. Brooks’ car. One of these persons was apparently giving Mr. Brooks directions to the clinic when the deputy stopped Mr. Brooks’ vehicle.”

Also, the ruling said: “While Mr. Brooks explained the unusual circumstances of his errand to the deputy, the cat’s owner pleaded, ‘My cat is fixing to die!’ In fact, the cat did die, during or shortly after the vehicle stop that resulted in Mr. Brooks’ arrest.”

A jury found Brooks guilty of felony DUI, which led to the appeal. Among the issues raised by Brooks was that Hillsborough County Circuit Judge Daniel H. Sleet denied his request for a jury instruction on the “defense of necessity.”

But the appeals court upheld Sleet’s decision, ruling that a person can use such a defense in circumstances to “avoid an imminent threat of danger or serious bodily injury to himself or others. We do not interpret the phrase ‘or others’ as applying to animals.”

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