Careless driving and reckless sentencing

The value of a cyclist's life in the scales of justice - photo by Greg Raisman by flckr

Careless driving and reckless sentencing

Judge suspends prison sentence for lorry driver who caused a cyclist's death by careless driving whilst reaching for his mobile phone to listen to a sermon. Is it OK to be careless if you are associated with the church?

On the 6 September 2014 Chris Dennehy was cycling on the A38 near Plymouth when he was driven into from behind by a lorry driven by John Noble. It was daytime, the weather was good, the incident occurred on a straight dry road. Even under these good conditions, a professional driver managed to drift out of the inside lane and onto the hard verge of the road, killing Chris Dennehy in the process.

John Noble gave no explanation to the police when interviewed, and declined to give evidence at his trial for dangerous driving. The court did however hear from one of Noble's work colleagues who said that, five days after the incident, Noble told him that he had reached over to play a sermon on his mobile phone moments before he hit Chris. How long he was busy with his phone and for how long he was distracted is unclear, because Noble chose to remain silent.

Sentencing

Acquitted of dangerous driving, Noble was sentenced on the 14 October 2015 at Plymouth Crown Court for causing death by careless driving, an offence punishable with a prison sentence of up to 5 years. 

In sentencing offenders judges are supposed to consider the degree of carelessness when assessing the seriousness of the offence. The Sentencing Council guidelines suggest that the starting point in cases where the driving falls not far short of dangerous driving is 15 months custody. Driving using a hand held mobile phone, in itself an unlawful act, is identified as 'seriously culpable behaviour' which will 'always make an offence more serious', as does 'failing to have proper regard to vulnerable road users'. A mitigating factor can be an offender's lack of driving experience, but of course Noble was a professional driver who might reasonably be expected to understand the dangers of using a mobile phone whilst driving.

Association with the church

Sentencing him to 24 weeks custody suspended for two years, Recorder Donald Tait referred to Noble as 'a decent man, with a long history of association with the church'. His decision to illegally use his mobile phone whilst driving a lorry was described as 'a moment of carelessness' rather than 'seriously culpable behaviour' as outlined by the Sentencing Council. He was also disqualified from driving for 18 months. 

A review of reported sentences in the last three years for causing death by careless driving reveals that immediate custodial sentences were imposed in all 33 cases. What is so different in the Noble case? Why were the sentencing guidelines not applied in this case? CTC has campaigned via its Road Justice campaign for consistency in sentencing for road traffic crime but seemingly facts and explanations of no relevance to the commission of the offence still influence decisions.

If a judge decides to ignore the sentencing guidelines and take into account irrelevant factors, regrettably there is little that can be done other than publicise such ludicrous decisions, highlight the inconsistency and campaign for change.

Duncan Dollimore, CTC road safety and legal campaigns officer

Duncan Dollimore, CTC's Road safety and legal campaigns officer has been looking at the case, he believes the decision is inconsistent: "What if Noble had reached across for his mobile phone to download pornography? Would his degree of carelessness have been greater? Is it relevant that it was a sermon he was giving his attention to rather than his driving? Do the sentencing guidelines not apply to a man with a long history of association with the church?. There are so many unanswered questions in this case."

Unduly lenient sentence

In some cases where an unduly lenient sentence has been imposed, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) can be asked to appeal in the form of an Attorney General's Reference. Unfortunately, no reference can be made in a death by careless driving case.

Duncan added: "If a judge decides to ignore the sentencing guidelines and take into account irrelevant factors, regrettably there is little that can be done other than publicise such ludicrous decisions, highlight the inconsistency and campaign for change. CTC will continue to do so via the Road Justice campaign, and will highlight this case specifically as an example of the absurd."  

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