Sending a person caught driving under the influence of alcohol for the first time to jail would be disproportionate and require a revision of the entire Penal Code, journalists Anvar Samost and Toomas Sildam found on the Vikerraadio talk show "Samost ja Sildam."
A drunk driver killed three people in Saaremaa two weeks ago and the government's traffic committee is set to discuss tougher punishments for traffic offenses next week. Minister of the Interior Mart Helme (EKRE) has proposed equating causing a death while driving in a state of intoxication to manslaughter and sending drivers caught drunk while driving to prison for one to four years.
Toomas Sildam pointed out that had such a punishment been in effect last year, Estonia would have had to send an additional 5,000 people to prison. The Tartu Prison fits 1,000 inmates, meaning that Estonia would have required another five prisons like it.
Anvar Samost said that even though punishments have become tougher over the past decade, a person caught driving under the influence could keep their license today. The first such offense is usually punished with a fine and a driving disqualification in more serious cases.
"A curious penal policy split has opened up here. On the one hand, we have quite a few people in addition to the interior minister who, looking at the seriousness of the accident, say that a person who gets behind the wheel while drunk is a potential murderer and should be sent to prison for making that decision. On the other hand, there are still those in society / …/ who ask whether Estonia's zero tolerance policy for being intoxicated while driving is justified," he said.
Samost gave the example of former justice minister Rein Lang's idea of having an allowed blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.5.
"Perhaps Lang would be right in a perfect world, but people make mistakes, and looking at the reality in Estonia, it does not seem we have too many of those who get into trouble for having half a glass of wine with dinner. / …/ The problem is with those who drive to the shop for another two six-packs after drowning four beers. And zero tolerance works much more effectively on that lot," he said.
Samost added that prison sentences for first offenses would require a revision of the entire Penal Code, in addition to investments of the justice ministry's prisons department.
"What I want to say is that it would be disproportionate, all things considered. We are moving toward a society were people too fewer foolish things / …/ To now come and lay down a very strict penal policy would be too much," Samost said.
Sildam agreed that while the public expects tougher punishments after the Saaremaa tragedy, sending first time drunk drivers to prison would be over the top. He also pointed out professor of criminology Jüri Saar's observation that no one has proposed tougher punishments for ignoring the police's stop signal and driving off.
"Saar's proposal was to equate escaping from the police to drunk driving and it being subject to the same punishment," Sildam pointed out.
Editor: Marcus Turovski