Last month, we reported on the case of a South Australian woman who successfully argued that her driving ability was not negatively affected by the presence of methamphetamine in her blood at the time of an accident in which a 12-year-old boy sustained a collapsed lung and a fractured skull.
After a three day trial in the District Court, Judge Barry Beazley found that 38-year-old Leah Jane Lenarczyk was ‘not guilty’ of culpable or dangerous driving causing bodily harm, instead finding her guilty of the lesser offence of aggravated driving without due care and attention.
At the time that the judgment was handed down, many members of the public expressed their concern that the case may set a dangerous precedent for drug-affected drivers to escape criminal penalties when involved in an accident.
Many believed that the judge’s decision to find Ms Lenarczyk guilty of the less serious charge would mean that she would escape a heavy penalty.
But today, Judge Beazley sentenced Lenarczyk to seven months’ imprisonment, finding that no penalty other than a full-time prison sentence was appropriate in light of the serious nature of the case and her previous convictions for driving unlicensed.
Was the Sentence Fair?
The offence that Ms Lenarczyk was eventually convicted of carries a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment, much less than the maximum of 2 years for the dangerous driving charge.
The South Australian offence that Lenarczyk was found guilty of is similar to the New South Wales offence of negligent or reckless driving contained in section 117 of the Road Transport Act 2013.
Section 117 prescribes a maximum penalty for reckless or negligent driving occasioning grievous bodily harm (first offence) of 9 months imprisonment, and/or a fine of up to $2,200.
Statistics published by the Judicial Commission of NSW show that the vast majority of such cases are finalised in the Local Court, where the most common penalty is a fine of $1,000.
In fact, just 2% of people received a prison sentence for this offence, with a non-parole period varying between 3 and 4 months.
Only one such case was reported in the District Court between October 2007 and September 2014, which was dealt with by way of a suspended sentence.
For drivers convicted of reckless driving, the most common penalty in the Local Court was again a fine of $1,000.
Only 6% of offenders were sent to prison, with the most commonly imposed non-parole period being 6 months.
Just five offenders between July 2013 and December 2014 were sentenced to a period of imprisonment of 7 months or longer.
So, all in all, the penalty imposed on Ms Lenarcyk’s appears to be towards the higher end of the spectrum – contrary to members of the public who may believe that the sentence was too light.
A Change in the Law Ahead?
In light of Ms Lenarcyk’s case, some have called upon governments to reform the law to send a clear message that drug driving is a serious offence.
According to Victims’ Rights Commissioner Michael O’Connell, changes are needed to address the situation ‘where it’s near impossible to prove a person is affected by methamphetamine when they drive.’
But these views arguably dispute the findings of the two very qualified experts who testified during Ms Lenarcuk’s trial, both of whom have spent considerable time researching the impact of drugs on driving ability.
While the views of people such as Mr O’Connell are understandable in the wake of such a serious accident – particularly one involving a child – it is important to exercise caution in implementing legal reforms.
Expert witnesses play a valuable role in criminal proceedings by explaining complicated concepts and using their specialised knowledge and training to provide opinions about the evidence in a case.
To undermine the views of experts could have a significant impact on whether their evidence is accepted in court – which can have a negative impact on procedural fairness and justice.