Punishments to fit the crime

At least six, possibly seven, times as many people will die in road accidents this year as will be murdered. Accidents may be the wrong word, as the possibility of something going wrong in the event of excessive speeding or the consumption of alcoholic drink, both of which are offences in themselves, is increased. All drivers should know this, which makes them responsible for their actions. So does it mean that they should serve long jail sentences as a result if their actions result in death? It seems not.


There are few calls for mandatory sentencing of those shown to be responsible for the deaths of others on our roads. Why not? After all, a car possesses many of the dangers of a bullet from a loaded gun: if it hits somebody at speed it is likely to kill or seriously injure. Many of those who cause life-ending crashes are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs, just like many of the gun-toting murderers attracting so much attention at present, and for whom many demand tougher sentences. Others simply go too fast because they act irresponsibly.

The difference obviously is that most adults drive cars, which is legal, while few carry guns, which are not. Nobody gets into a car with the intention to crash, let alone kill somebody. Carrying a gun implies an intent that can result in a tragic outcome. For that reason, many voices have been raised in recent weeks demanding, with some reason, tougher sentences for those in possession of firearms. But why not for those who risk the lives of others through their speeding or by drink driving? In such circumstances, the penalty is merely points or the temporary loss of a licence to drive. Is that enough?

Almost every month there are examples in the courts of drivers getting suspended sentences or short custodial sentences for dangerous driving causing death. It is possible that if those inclined to taking risks on the roads notice these cases they will come to the conclusion that any punishment they will receive for serious offences is likely to be light.

Consider the case of John Fitzpatrick. He is a 22-year-old sentenced to 18 months imprisonment by Judge Raymond Groake at Galway Circuit Criminal Court last Thursday for dangerous (and drunk) driving causing the death of his passenger and close friend Matt Berry, and serious injury to back seat passenger Oliver Hanley in July 2004.

When Fitzpatrick, who had been drinking for hours, realised that one friend was dead and another injured he didn't ring for an ambulance. He rang his brother and sister and a friend who had been left out of the car earlier. They took Mr Berry's body from the passenger seat and placed it in the driver's seat. In effect, they tried to frame a dead man. Fortunately, an alert Gardaí realised that things looked wrong and the truth was discovered eventually.

But the State withdrew a charge of perverting the course of justice and the DPP also decided not to press charges against three others who helped to move the body.

Fitzpatrick's actions may be explained by the same consumption of alcohol that made him unfit to drive. What motivated the others, apart from family loyalty, is a mystery. The judge expressed outrage at what Fitzpatrick did. His prison sentence is for 18 months.

You can educate people about the dangers of speeding and drink driving both to themselves and others. Most people listen but many don't, in which case the deterrent of harsh sentences for offences becomes legitimate. But if they see that people receive sentences this short for this sort of thing, well then it really is a question of hoping that people will have, and retain, good sense in all circumstances.

Corporate Crime

There's no mandatory sentencing for corporate crime either. There aren't too many prosecutions and there are even fewer convictions, which shouldn't be taken to imply that there aren't serious issues of corruption and tax evasion in Irish business.

There has been a long list but few things have beaten the scandal of the illegal Ansbacher bank and its facilitation of massive tax evasion by some of the richest people in this country. That it was run by a Taoiseach's closest financial adviser, the late Des Traynor, who was never caught for what he did, and that one of its main clients was Charles Haughey, made it an exceptional scandal. You might have thought that it would result in exceptional circumstances for those responsible for it.

Traynor died before the scam – which cost the State tens of millions in lost tax revenues – was uncovered. Traynor had not worked alone and when he died the work continued seamlessly. Padraig Collery had been apprenticed in the chicanery for years and knew exactly what to do when Traynor died, going so far as to continue operating from the CRH headquarters where Traynor kept an office for his illegal bank. The inspectors who investigated Ansbacher found that Collery, among other things, knowingly conducted his client's affairs so as to help them to evade tax. That report was issued in the summer of 2002.

Nearly four years on the law finally caught up with Collery, who is described as a banking technology consultant. In the very first court punishment arising from the whole Ansbacher scandal, the High Court has approved his disqualification from the management of any business for the next nine years, on an application from Paul Appleby, the Director of Corporate Enforcement (ODCE).

Given his age and given the amount of money he must have been paid over the years for his work, this hardly seems likely an unduly tough "sentence", does it?