Drunk driving

Bizarrely lenient sentences negate the logic of deterrence. They undercut our safety and corrode our faith in the justice system.

Shahar Greenspan 370 (photo credit: Channel 2)
Shahar Greenspan 370
(photo credit: Channel 2)
Supreme Court President Asher Grunis more than hinted to the parents of Shachar Greenspan that the justices are unlikely to accept their appeal against last year’s unaccountable plea bargain that resulted in a six-month community-service sentence for Mark Patrick, the drunk driver who in 2009 left their 12-year-old daughter a quadriplegic.
Patrick, whose blood alcohol level was four times the legal limit, was also fined the grand sum of NIS 1,000, and his driver’s license was revoked for six years. The decision on the appeal will be announced at a later date.
At the High Court hearing last Wednesday the prosecution owned up that “certain mistakes were made,” but argued that the sentence cannot be changed.
Grunis seemed to echo that contention when he summed up and said to the stunned family and its attorney: “There is some sort of illusion that the High Court can do anything in this country. But it cannot.”
The inescapable inference is that the sentence cannot be amended. Nevertheless, in the same breath, Grunis did suggest that instead of being banned from driving for six years, Patrick be denied his license for life.
Would that not be a revision of the sentence, unsatisfactory though it would be? Inconsequential and nearly insulting as it is to dwell merely on the license, it establishes the principle that plea bargains and sentences aren’t immutable.
There are indeed assorted precedents wherein the High Court did amend sentences. One very prominent example is the case of former Shas minister Shlomo Benizri, whom the Jerusalem District Court sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment on corruption charges in 2008. Both Benizri and the state appealed to the High Court against the sentence. The court more than doubled Benizri’s time behind bars and sent him up for four years.
Bottom line, where there’s a will there’s a legal way, but not so, apparently, in Patrick’s case. It’s hard to imagine a situation as black and white.
Saturday, November 28, 2009, was exactly one week before Shachar was due to celebrate her bat mitzva.
Invitations were out, the party venue booked and a new dress purchased. That morning, not far from home, Shachar and a girlfriend waited on a Netanya sidewalk for a green light to cross the street. But out of nowhere a 57-year-old heavily inebriated driver swerved onto the pavement and hit both girls.
Shachar’s friend sustained relatively light injuries but Shachar’s head trauma was so grave that doctors doubted she’d survive. She clung to life but remains a quadriplegic who can only communicate via eye movement.
Nonetheless, Petah Tikva Traffic Court Judge Tal Ostfeld- Navy convicted Patrick in a plea-bargain deal, and with distasteful understatement described the consequences of the accident as “quite serious.”
She went on to justify her lenience, noting that the driver isn’t young, was widowed, has nobody to confide in, had a hard life including a heart attack, isn’t a man of means and, most of all, expressed contrition.
He cooperated with the authorities and the fact that he saved the judicial system valuable court-time sufficed, in her view, to let him off with a slap on the wrist.
Shachar’s family wasn’t apprised of the sentencing schedule and was denied any opportunity to object to the plea agreement contrived behind its back. No explanation was ever proffered as to why the prosecution opted for the deal and why the court saw fit to accept it. Our system doesn’t oblige judges to abide by prosecution-defense deals. There was no onus on Ostfeld- Navy to accept it.
That the highest court in the land, which insists we owe it dutiful respect, should appear so unsympathetic to the stricken family underscores the initial judicial failing. If the High Court leaves the shameful bargain untouched, it will accentuate the widespread suspicion that judges take the easy route when offered the opportunity. Bizarrely lenient sentences negate the logic of deterrence. They undercut our safety and corrode our faith in the justice system.
The only antidote is for the Knesset to, belatedly, enact pending compulsory minimum-sentencing legislation.