Legal expert: Saaremaa drunk driver murder verdict a significant precedent

Professor Jaan Ginter.
Professor Jaan Ginter. Source: ERR

Wednesday's guilty verdict in a fatal road accident caused by a drunk driver on Saaremaa in January 2020 was unexpected and may set an encouraging precedent, a legal expert says. At the same time, due to its watershed nature, the ruling is likely to be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, he said.

The perpetrator was handed 14 years' jail time, for murder, the first time in Estonian legal history a drink driver has been so sentenced.

Jaan Ginter, lawyer and professor of criminology at the University of Tartu, said similar cases in the past had not placed the same emphasis on intent that Wednesday's Pärnu County Court ruling did.

Appearing on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" (AK) Wednesday evening, Ginter said: "The prosecutor's office had already considered the possibility of pushing for a murder verdict in the case of a very serious traffic violation last summer on Laagna tee (in Tallinn - ed.), following a high speed road chase which ended in several deaths."

"However, in the Laagna tee case, the prosecutor's office eventually took the matter to court only on a lesser charge," he added.

The Laagna tee case did not involve alcohol.

Andres Reinart was sentenced to 14 years in prison by Pärnu County Court Wednesday. Reinart had caused an accident which killed three people, an infant and two women, in January 2020, while heavily intoxicated and driving at speed.

Reinart hit the victims' car when overtaking, not noticing that they had indicated to turn left off the road they were both traveling on.

Reinart's blood alcohol content (BAC) was measured to be 3.51 per mille at Kuressaare hospital, an hour after the accident. Subsequent expert analysis lowered the figure to 1.82 per mille.

The judgment is significant, Ginter said, because murder requires intent.

"In criminal law, both in Estonia and in other countries, there are several different levels of intent. The goal of someone's death and the achievement of that goal, in other words, what we usually imagine when thinking about intentional killing, would be the highest of these levels," Ginter told AK, as opposed to the intermediate (awareness that actions could cause death, but not aiming for that outcome) and lightest (aware of the possibility that death could arise, but not certain of that; nonetheless the culprit does nothing to mitigate their actions) levels.

Pärnu County Court came to the conclusion that in the Reinart case, the third of these was at play, in drink driving and overtaking a car at speed – i.e. that he could not have foreseen the outcome for certain, but would have been aware of the risk and did nothing to alleviate it that day, Ginter noted.

At the same time, in terms of sentencing, the surprises were fewer, Ginter went on, since the maximum penalties for traffic offenses with severe outcomes like in this case is as high as 12 years in jail.

Ginter also noted the judgment can and, given its precedent, most likely will be appealed, both at the second-tier circuit court and at the Supreme Court (even if the circuit court upholds the county court's decision, it can still be appealed at the top court – ed.).

"The final legal assessment of this tragic case will probably only become clear in the higher courts," Ginter said, adding that if upheld the judgment may set a precedent for prosecutors to seek murder verdicts in other, similar cases, as could have happened with the Laagna tee crash.

Reinart has claimed throughout that he remembers nothing of the accident or the event leading up to it.

The prosecutor on Wednesday praised the court's verdict and noted it was likely to set a precedent.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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