Category Archives: criminal law

The Force definitely wasn’t with him…

A drunken man in Wales dressed up in a black bin bag and cape and attacked two cousins with a metal crutch. Why would he do that? Well, apparently he wished to join the Dark Side of the Force. The cousins had recently set up a Jedi church in Holyhead, and were making a film of themselves duelling with lightsabers when the drunken man vaulted the fence and attacked them, shouting “Darth Vader!” as he did so.

Pre-sentence reports will be heard in mid-May.

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Jah on their side…

This article about the collapse of a legal trial against some Rastafarians cracks me up.

Apparently the five Rastas had been charged with cannabis dealing, and the trial had been running for two weeks when one of the police officers recognised a paralegal from the defence team for one of the defendants. The paralegal was said to have telephoned the police and complained about alleged drug running at the Rastafarian temple, although she denied this. What were the chances of that?

The trial descended into chaos, and the prosecution decided not to tender any further evidence. The judge decided that the defendants should be acquitted.

(Hat tip to Dave Bath at Balneus)

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Toddlers as witnesses

The other day, I was driving my 2 year old daughter to creche. She announced with satisfaction and great confidence from the back of the car, “One day, Mummy broke my fingers.” I saw her make an illustrative wiggle of the said fingers in the rear view mirror.

“What?” I cried with horror. “I have never done that. What are you talking about?”

“Mummy shut my fingers in the door at Nanny and Papa’s and I did cry and Nanny got bandaids for me,” she explained.

This incident is the bane of my life. About a month ago, I had started closing the door to the outside loo at Mum and Dad’s when a little Miss stuck her finger in between the hinges, and the door started to close on two of her fingers. Of course, as soon as I heard the cry, I stopped the door swinging, and although there was a little bruising, there was no blood. I was simply horrified, and also burst into tears. What was worse was that my daughter blamed me, and wouldn’t give me a kiss when she went to bed. But all was forgiven the next day when she woke up and announced, “I love you Mummy!” Or so I thought…

She keeps bringing the incident. Clearly, I am not entirely forgiven. Like her mother, she is a bit of a drama queen, and “Mummy broke my fingers” sounds far more dramatic than “Mummy accidentally bruised two of my fingers, but I was fine by the next morning.”

The moral of this story is: Never trust a two year old to recount events accurately.

I couldn’t help thinking of this when I read of a legal bid for a toddler to give evidence at a murder trial. Apparently, half way through the trial, it became apparent that the poor little boy could have possibly witnessed the killing of his mother. He was two years and five months old at the time of her death, and is now four years old. The boy’s account suggested that it was not the defendant who “hurt” his mother, but the defendant’s son (also the boy’s father). Justice Lasry refused the application for the boy to give evidence. In the event, the defendant was acquitted of murder but convicted of manslaughter.

Of course I can understand why the defence would have wished to lead the child’s evidence, but I think that the judge was correct to refuse the application. My own experience with my daughter the other day has convinced me even more firmly that the evidence of a toddler is not reliable!

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Some people will try anything

I thought I’d seen all the pathetic excuses possible for trying to get out of legal proceedings (including seceding from Australia, declaring the Court to be a hotbed of Freemasons and/or claiming that the Constitution is invalid for spurious reasons). But this is one of the best:

Richard James Howarth was remanded to appear in the Ipswich Magistrate’s Court to answer a string of traffic offences, including four counts of driving with a blood alcohol content more than three times the legal limit.

However, his lawyers said he failed to appear after having earlier informed them he would not talk to them because he is was [sic] the almighty and above answering to Queensland laws.

Early this month, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Legal Service solicitor Kevin Rose, for Howarth, told the court his client refused his office’s attempts to talk to them.

A court and a mental health expert have already deemed Howarth was mentally fit for trial, but Mr Rose maintained he has obvious mental health issues.

Mr Rose said he did not doubt Howarth genuinely believed he was God.

The Magistrate issued a warrant for Howarth’s arrest. Now if Howarth can turn the handcuffs into loaves and fishes, he might have some possibility of being believed…

Incidentally, if he is God, I have a number of questions for Him:

  • Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • Whose God are you? It would sure help if You mediated some religious conflicts waged in Your name.
  • What is your point of view about homosexuality? (a la Southpark)
  • If you are God, why couldn’t you just magic the alcohol away from your bloodstream before you got into the car? (I’m thinking here of Aziraphale and Crowley in Good Omens

(Via Iain Hall)

Update:

A friend has asked that I recount one of my own craziest litigant in person stories. I came across this litigant in person who had exhibited the Magna Carta to his affidavit. Now that’s pretty stock standard with these guys. But the extraordinary thing was that his primary source for the Magna Carta seemed to be a novelty tea towel. I’m guessing it was a tea towel because of the fabric weave visible in the photocopy. Also there was kitschy gothic script. None of the judges commented on it, and I’m not sure that anyone else noticed.

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Filed under cars, courts, crazy stuff, criminal law, driving, law, mental illness, religion

Updates

Update 1:

Thomas Towle, the Mildura driver who killed 6 teens and seriously injured 4 others, has been sentenced to 10 years in gaol. I told you it would be interesting to see what his sentence would be! Although Towle was convicted of dangerous driving (a lesser offence), he will be serving more time than the average sentence for culpable driving (a greater offence). Cummins J chose to treat the sentence as culmulative rather than concurrent, meaning that Towle was sentenced for a longer time. The defence had tried to argue that because the maximum penalty for dangerous driving was 5 years, the greatest Towle could face would be 5 years.

Update 2:

Someone else is thinking about whether animals with higher cognition should have more legal rights. I got there first! (thanks to Dave Bath)…

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Not just monkey business

What happens if a person is brought up in a way that is more likely to cause them to act violently? Should they be criminally responsible for their actions? That’s a difficult enough question, but what happens if the perpetrator of a crime is a monkey? These questions are raised by the case of Chico the delinquent pet macaque.

Chico had already been in trouble with the law previously. When US Federal agents had visited the home of his owner some years ago, Chico had acted aggressively and threw faeces at the agents (although he was not the subject of their investigation, of course). This probably didn’t help his cause in the eyes of the law.

On the present occasion, he escaped from his home in Spokane and bit three people shortly thereafter. He was then taken into custody and held at a local humane society. Because he had bitten people, there was a chance that he could have infected them with rabies or herpes B, both of which are fatal to humans. The only way of testing for rabies is a post mortem test of brain tissue, and accordingly, it was decided that he should be put down.

One can’t help feeling sorry for poor old Chico. Apparently it’s a very bad idea to keep monkeys as pets, and they commonly become aggressive and violent. The bottom line is that in many cases, they can’t be “domesticated”, but nor can they then readapt to normal primate society either. Further, some monkeys carry diseases which can be transferred to humans. Many macaques carry Herpes B.

Should a primate like Chico have “quasi-human” rights or “primate rights”? Some might argue that we show no qualms about putting down dogs who bite humans, so a monkey is no different. However, monkeys are much closer to humans genetically speaking. Should they be given more of a chance than a dog?

Here it seems that Chico was put down primarily because of the health concerns involved, but it doesn’t seem fair that he has to pay the ultimate price for that: his misbehaviour is a direct consequence of his owner’s behaviour in treating him as a pet. Incidentally, it appears that his owner will be charged with keeping a dangerous animal. She is already awaiting sentencing for fraud proceedings in relation to a false college degrees sold over the Internet.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if a larger primate (such as an orang utan or a chimpanzee) killed a person. Should it be determined if the primate had understanding of its actions if it was proposed to put the animal down? To establish criminal liability, it is required to establish that there was an actus reus (criminal action) and a mens rea (criminal intention). It has been argued that chimpanzees could potentially be more rational than human beings (in an experiment involving the economist’s ultimatum game). Do chimpanzees and other great apes have the moral agency required to be prosecuted for a crime? I am sure I have seen a documentary where a grieving chimpanzee mother carried around her dead baby for days, until some other chimps from the group took the baby away. It was actually very distressing to watch. Clearly the mother and the other chimps had a concept of death, and what is more, the mother had a very human reaction to her child’s death.

On the other hand, having a “quasi-trial” for an animal could become farcical. There is a long and dishonourable tradition of animal trials. The most common animals which were the subject of such trials were pigs, bulls, cows or horses, or pests such as rats, mice and weevils. Edward Payson Evans wrote a book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906, which cited a variety of cases, including the prosecution of a number of moles in the Valle D’Aosta in 824, the charges against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 and the conviction of a Swiss dog for murder in 1906. It’s well worth reading this article in Cabinet Magazine for more details of the book – I think I need a copy.

Back to Chico: a case such as this does raise serious issues as to how we deal with criminal offences, whether committed by human or primate.

  • How much should ill-treatment and bad upbringing explain criminal conduct?
  • If monkeys can become aggressive through a particular kind of upbringing, is the same true of humans?
  • How genetically close should an animal be to a human being before it is treated like a human before the law? (if at all)
  • What if it can be shown that a particular kind of animal has some sort of moral understanding akin to human understanding?
  • What if a human perpetrator has very little moral understanding of the consequences of his or her criminal actions? Does this make them able to be treated like an “animal”? (I would argue not – that’s what universal human rights are all about – but it’s an interesting question)

It’s a pretty sad case all in all. It sounds to me like the US is in dire need of some laws with regard to keeping primates as pets – primates are very like us in some ways, but they are not substitute children, and they do badly in a domesticated environment.

(Via Short Sharp Science blog, from New Scientist)

(Hat tip to Dave Bath for bringing this case to my attention)

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Why, oh why? Juries and the reasons for their decisions

It’s easy to be an armchair judge or jury member. I must admit that I was surprised when I read that Thomas Towle was found not guilty of six counts of culpable driving causing death. Instead, the jurors found him guilty of dangerous driving causing death, which is a lesser offence carrying a lesser sentence.

In 2006, the car Towle was driving spun out of control and crashed into a group of teenagers walking home from a party, killing 6 of them and seriously injuring 4 others. After the accident, he fled the scene, leaving his four year old son and ten year old daughter in the car. The parents of the dead teenagers have been outraged and distressed by the lesser conviction, particularly after it emerged that Towle had prior driving offences about which the jury had not been told. Of course, the reports that Towle’s father blames the “sinful” teenagers rather than his son for the accident will distress the parents even further.

But I also know from my own days in practice that it’s very different sitting through an entire case than it is reading a newspaper report. Indeed, the Victorian Setencing Advisory Committee prepared a report on public perceptions of sentencing which established exactly that. In the executive summary to the report it is stated that:

  • In the abstract, the public thinks that sentences are too lenient
  • In the abstract, people tend to think about violent and repeat offenders when reporting that sentencing is too lenient
  • People have very little accurate knowledge of crime and the criminal justice system
  • The mass media is the primary source of information on crime and justice issues
  • When people are given more information, their levels of punitiveness drop dramatically
  • People with previous experiences of crime victimisation are no more punitive than the general community
  • People with high levels of fear of crime are more likely to be punitive
  • Despite apparent punitiveness, the public favours increasing the use of alternatives to imprisonment
  • Despite apparent punitiveness, the public believes that the most effective way to control crime is via programs such as education and parental support, rather than via criminal justice interventions
  • Despite apparent punitiveness, public sentencing preferences are actually very similar to those expressed by the judiciary or actually used by the courts
  • Despite apparent punitiveness, the public favours rehabilitation over punishment as the primary purpose of sentencing for young offenders, first-time offenders and property offenders
  • Despite apparent punitiveness, public support for imprisonment declines when the offender makes restorative gesture

{emphasis added}

The report is well worth reading in full if you have a moment. Essentially, the only criminal cases about which we are told in the media are the “juicy” and shocking ones, where the result is newsworthy and sensational. Of course, media outlets like to focus on outraged victims and/or their families in these cases. Further, we only know a small proportion of the facts that come before a judge and jury, and studies have shown that when people are given more facts, their views of an appropriate response change. So I’m wary of claims that sentencing is “too lenient”. In individual cases, mistakes happen, but it is not an across-the-board phenomenon.

Back to the Towle case. The four principal charges against Towle were:

  • Six counts of culpable driving causing death;
  • Four counts of negligently causing serious injury;
  • Six counts of dangerous driving causing death;
  • Four counts of dangerous driving causing serious injury.

There were other charges, but I won’t mention them here. The first two were the more serious charges, with culpable driving carrying a penalty of up to 20 years in gaol. The second two were the alternative lesser charges, with dangerous driving carrying a penalty of up to 5 years in gaol. In order to prove that Towle was guilty of culpable driving, the prosecution had to prove that Towle was “grossly” negligent, whereas for the lesser charge of dangerous driving, the prosecution merely had to prove that Towle was negligent. In judging whether Towle’s driving was grossly negligent, or merely negligent, the jury could not be swayed by the horrific consequences of the accident or Towle’s cowardly actions afterwards. The question was to what degree the driving up to the accident was negligent?

I can’t answer that question. I don’t know all the information which the jury received. It is clear that he was speeding, with his son sitting on his lap, but I don’t know what the expert evidence was.

We also don’t know what the sentence will be yet. Justice Cummins will consider that question on Monday. However, in that context, I thought I might look at another report by the Victorian Sentencing Advisory Committee, which provides a “snapshot” of sentences for culpable driving causing death. It was interesting to note that the most common sentence of imprisonment for the more serious offence of culpable driving was four years with a non-parole period of two years. The median principal imprisonment level was 5 years. So even if Towle had been convicted of the more serious offence, according to the law of averages, he may still have been facing a sentence of around 5 years. It will be interesting to see what the sentence is. I suspect it will be at the higher end for dangerous driving, but I can’t say for sure.

The other question which has been raised in the light of this case is whether juries should explain their verdicts. Dr Mirko Bagaric and Colin Lovitt QC presented opposing points of view in The Herald Sun today. Presently, juries are not allowed to explain their verdicts to the press or anyone else. This is in contrast to the US, where juries can give interviews to the press explaining why they decided as they did. Sometimes this creates an unpleasant media circus where jury members are hounded by the press.

I think I sit somewhere between Bagaric and Lovitt. I think it’s important for juries to give an idea of why they decided as they did to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system. As I’ve noted above, the more facts people know about a decision, the more likely they are to find it acceptable. But I think it is really important that individual jury members not be interviewed or identified by the press, and they certainly should not be hounded. I would favour an agreed written statement of reasons produced by the jury, to accompany the handing down of a verdict. Of course, the problem with this is that it may lead to more appeals in criminal cases if a potential flaw is found in the jury’s reasoning. But then, as Bagaric says, isn’t it fairer that we redress flaws than leave them hidden? And I think it’s always better to know than to be left in the dark. It may be that the jury had perfectly explicable reasons for deciding as they did in this case, and I think they should be allowed to give a statement justifying their decision.

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