There’s been quite the brouhaha here over the last few days over the non-custodial sentences given to two women who attacked and injured a paramedic. The case, if you’re interested, was Director of Public Prosecutions v Warren & Underwood  VCC 689. The public response has been predictably savage, and remarkably unforgiving when one considers that both women were (and are) apparently remarkably damaged after lifetimes of physical and sexual abuse. Attempts by me to defend the decision were not well received –
Ambulance Employees state secretary Steve McGhie said he was given an undertaking from the Premier that he would change laws to jail people who injure emergency services workers, even if they are suffering from mental illnesses including schizophrenic episodes.
I have a stake in this: I am an “emergency services worker” when I’m not being a lawyer (State Emergency Service, Coast Guard and Red Cross). But I can’t stomach the idea that protecting me warrants effectively re-criminalizing mental illness. It is too close to punishing for the sake of punishing.
I have to agree with Pope Francis: punishments which are imposed in the hope of frightening people into compliance – public punishments – are a hammer that makes every problem look like a nail:
a widespread conviction has taken root in recent decades that public punishment can resolve the most disparate social problems, as if completely different diseases could be treated with the same medicine. This is not so much about trust in some social function traditionally attributed to public punishment, as about the belief that it is possible that such punishment can obtain those benefits that would demand the application of a different type of social and economic policy as well as social inclusion.
A politician grubbing for votes by coming down hard on criminals is merely acting in a tawdry and predictable manner. One who does so by coming down hard on the ill is repulsive.
Suing emergency services for defective performance of their functions is difficult-to-impossible in most jurisdictions. However, this does not exclude sanctions for criminally poor performance.
Crenshanda Williams was employed as a call taker by the Houston Emergency Centre. For reasons which are unclear, she hung up on thousands of 911 phone calls, including calls relating to robbery and illegal street racing. According to one report she dismissed a caller saying “ain’t nobody got time for this”. She was charged with interfering with emergency telephone calls. Texas Penal Code§42.062(a) says –
An individual commits an offense if the individual knowingly prevents or interferes with another individual’s ability to place an emergency call or to request assistance, including a request for assistance using an electronic communications device, in an emergency from a law enforcement agency, medical facility, or other agency or entity the primary purpose of which is to provide for the safety of individuals.
French Republic v A Firefighter (2014) H&FLR 2015-11
Amiens Criminal Court
11 December 2014
Coram: Not identified.
Appearing for the Prosecution: Not identified. Appearing for the Defendant: Not identified.
Catchwords: France – criminal law – emergency services – road accident – manslaughter – emergency
Facts: The accused was a firefighter with 33 years experience and, in particular, 10 years experience driving under emergency conditions. On 6 October 2011 at around 10:00pm he was driving a tanker in a built-up area to the scene of a gas leak. It was agreed that the driver had been complying with all applicable safety regulations when he passed through a red light with flashing lights and sirens activated. Despite this, the truck collided with a scooter which entered the intersection pursuant to a green light. The scooter driver was killed in the collision. The driver was charged with “homicide involontaire” (≈ manslaughter).
The accused’s evidence was that he had slowed the truck, that he had not needed to speed as he had not yet been given the precise address of the gas leak, and that the scooter had entered the intersection at high speed.
Held: Convicting the driver, that the Court was not convinced that the gas leak was so urgent as to require driving under emergency conditions and disregarding the red light.
Note: the accused has announced his intention to appeal.
Comment: This case has obvious relevance from a fitness perspective, noting that the scooter driver could equally have been a runner, cyclist or equestrian. It should be noted that the court’s rationale – that it was able to second-guess the driver’s assessment of the situation, that it had done so and found it wanting – has been deduced second-hand from a comment made on the case by the union representing firefighters. That said, it is the only variable which would explain the driver’s conviction in light of the other evidence.