COLUMN: The tough justice questions must be tackled

A $1,500 fine in exchange for a human life seems to be an appallingly unbalanced equation – particularly when it eminates from the court.

A $1,500 fine in exchange for a human life seems to be an appallingly unbalanced equation – particularly when it eminates from the court.

Yet, that was the sentence handed to driver Thor Shay of Mission, who fatally struck flagger Don Cain in a construction zone in July 2010.

Judge Jill Rounthwaite also issued Shay a one-year driving ban.

Following emotional testimony that even drew tears from the judge, Rounthwaite acknowledged to family members in court that the sentence was “laughable in comparison to the death of your son and brother.”

“There is nothing that the court can do that can possibly make it better or can in any way compensate, or be sufficient for, the death of a loved one,” Rounthwaite said.

The public reaction to this case was predictable. People were outraged, and offended.

How can a driver take a life with his vehicle, and the court only takes his licence away for 12 months, and gives him a fine worth about as much as a worn-out used car?

Little wonder people lose faith in the so-called justice system.

Yet, the judge was essentially correct when she indicated she was bound by the law.

Shay was charged with driving without due care and attention. That falls under the provincial motor vehicle act. It is not a criminal code offence, which generally are subject to more harsh penalties than provincial driving legislation.

Crown counsel could have laid a charge of dangerous driving, but then they’d have to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The offence of criminal negligence requires even greater proof.

In order to pursue either, there would have to be strong evidence of “dangerous” driving. There was none.

Shay said he had been blinded by the sun, and didn’t see Cain.  Investigators challenged that, and also pointed out his windshield was dirty and cracked.

Regardless of the contributing factors, it would seem this was a case of a momentary lapse of driving attention.

There was no suggestion he was driving erratically, or speeding, or exhibiting any other behaviour that would support the dangerous driving charge.

Crown accepted his guilty plea to the driving without due care charge, and that left the judge with sentencing provisions under the law.

There is no maximum fine or jail sentence for driving without due care and attention. However, under the Offence Act, a person who is convicted of any offence is liable to a maximum fine of $2,000 and a maximum six-month jail term, or both.

The obvious question is why the judge did not levy the maximum fine, and add jail time, which would have gone a little further in addressing the gravity of the case.

She did not explain her reasoning, but perhaps she was considering the context of the circumstances.

Does a lapse of driving attention – which happens to every driver – deserve jail time? Would a prison sentence in this case make better drivers out of the rest of us?

Many of us will argue yes, it would.

Would a jail term compensate the family for the loss of their loved one? Clearly not. Six months in jail cannot equate to a human life? But a year? More?

Should the sentence be focused on bringing a sense of justice to a grieving family, or prevention of similar incidents in the future? What would satisfy both ends?

That’s where opinions begin to divide.

Yet there is no doubt that cases such as this appear to have little to no regard for the loss of an innocent life, and the impact upon the family of the victim. They are magnets for public ridicule and loss of trust.

The questions may seem immensely complex, but an overhaul of the justice system is desperately needed.

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