Aeg: Prison time for first-time drunk driving offense too harsh

Scene of the deadly crash in Saaremaa. January 11, 2020.
Scene of the deadly crash in Saaremaa. January 11, 2020. Source: Irina Mägi

Following a serious crash in Saaremaa that resulted in three deaths earlier this month, the minister of the interior and minister of justice submitted proposals regarding whether and how to tighten up punishments for drunk drivers. Both agree that a death caused by drunk driving should be treated as manslaughter, however there is no consensus regarding how individuals caught drunk driving for the first time should be punished.

On January 12, Prime Minister Jüri Ratas (Center) tasked the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of the Interior with figuring out how to tackle the problem of drivers who are used to driving drunk. The day before, two women and a nine-month-old baby were killed in a serious crash in Saaremaa caused by a speeding drunk driver.

Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) submitted proposals which included the proposal to sentence drivers caught driving drunk for the first time to one to four years in prison. Helme also recommended treating a death caused by drunk driving as manslaughter, which carries a sentence of 6-15 years in prison.

Minister of Justice Raivo Aeg (Isamaa), who submitted his own proposals on Wednesday, does not support taking things to the extreme. He believes that sending all drunk drivers to prison would go against all criminal policy goals, and that some room for discretion should be retained regarding in which cases an individual should be sent to prison.

"That would be an incredibly harsh punishment for a drunk driver to be caught for the first time and have to carry a one-year incarceration sentence," Aeg told ERR. "I don't support such a harsh approach."

The justice minister found that the circumstances should be considered together with other factors, such as the degree of drunkenness, whether they admit to their wrongdoing, or have they had issues with alcohol in other parts of their lives.

Criminology professor Jüri Saare agreed with Aeg. "This is clearly over the top," Saar told ERR, adding that this would go against state goals of having a low incarceration rate.

Last year, more than 5,000 people were caught driving drunk on Estonian roads. According to Aeg, sending all of these people to prison would cause a whole host of problems, including the overloading of Estonia's prison system. He likewise cited the goal of a low incarceration rate, noting that it was only recently reported that Estonia has among the highest rates in the EU per 100,000 residents.

Homicide in some U.S. states

According to the Penal Code, a first-time drunk driving offense carries either a pecuniary punishment or up to three years in prison. The courts may also decide to suspend an individual's driver's license for a period of at least three months. Repeat offenses carry a sentence of up to four years in prison.

Both Aeg and Saar agreed with the interior minister's proposal to treat a serious crash caused by drunk driving as manslaughter.

"If this is really a serial drunk driver, and if this culminates in one or several deaths, then they must be punished to the fullest extent, in which case incarceration is entirely appropriate," Aeg said, saying such a sentence would be entirely proportional.

Saar warned, however, that treating a death caused by a drunk driver as manslaughter wouldn't be as simple as just rewording the law, adding that this would have a clear impact on sentencing.

He also added that in some U.S. states, a death caused by drunk driving is treated as homicide. "In that case, you need to consider how great a source of danger a vehicle is when it is driven drunk," he said. "Thus far, we have treated it as an accident, in which case you can simply say that it happened by accident."

Evading the police

Another issue Saar found should be paid more attention, regarding which neither minister made any proposals, is evading the police.

He noted that the driver in the Saaremaa crash had reportedly previously evaded the police on two occasions and had his driver's license suspended for five months. When drivers evade police, he noted it's likely because the driver is drunk. When they turn themselves into the police later, sober, they end up with a lighter sentence as a result.

Drivers proven to have intentionally evaded police should be treated as drunk drivers, Saar said. "If police start to chase such individuals, the situation becomes even more dangerous as a result," he noted.

Aeg: Punishment alone doesn't help

While the justice minister generally agrees that sentences for crashes with serious consequences should be tightened up, he also brought up the need for preventive action as well as supervision.

"While Ministry of Justice studies have confirmed that the toughness of punishments don't significantly impact the recidivism of drunk drivers, considering how serious and widespread the problem is, we can indeed weigh the toughening of punishments as an expression of public condemnation," Aeg wrote in his letter.

He added, however, that simply toughening up punishments alone would not reduce the number of drunk drivers, noting that additional supervision of repeat drunk drivers should be considered.

Legislation concerning drunk driving was most recently toughened up less than three years ago.

Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) Director General Elmar Vaher does not believe that toughening up punishments will help either, acknowledging that prior legislative changes have been justified, but adding that changing the law would not improve the situation. The solution, he said, lies in the combined effects of several measures.

"If we seek new opportunities to change the law or new projects each day, then we lose continuity," Vaher said. "I believe that we need to address the driver's psychology, and not think that a man with a blood alcohol content of 3.6 permille won't get behind the wheel because their prison sentence may be three times longer."

Other measures proposed by the ministers included electronic surveillance of individuals with alcohol dependency issues, the introduction of a points system, the development of regulations for alcohol car locks, as well as the expanding of opportunities for the seizure of vehicles.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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