I’ve lost track of the number of road casualties since Charlie Alliston was convicted. In particular the motorways have seen some particularly tragic loss of human life. And while those matters do, it is fair to say, make it into the mainstream media, few questions are being asked how qualified, licensed, tax paying (!) and, in some cases, professional drivers are still continuing to cause quite so much carnage. So with the calls to ensure that all cyclists, off the back of Alliston’s conviction, are somehow held more accountable by, for example, carrying insurance, being taxed (!) and having registration plates, none of the above, if we are to take motorised vehicles as being the best example of practice, would, it seem, make the slightest amount of difference.
And, statistically, is there really much of an issue? There have been four (including Alliston) charges brought against ‘killer cyclists’ in the past 10 years. The first concerned the case of Darren Hall. That case appears straightforward, Hall mounted the pavement as he was travelling far too quickly to stop. There was some mitigation but he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 7 months in prison. He will have served around half of that.
We can extrapolate some data from that conviction. The maximum sentence available to the trial judge is 2 years (section 35 of the Offences against the Person Act 1861). There are no sentencing guidelines available for this offence. Sentencing for this is a little bit of a finger in the air exercise but, of course, general sentencing guidelines and principles must be followed, aggravating and mitigating factors will be balanced.We know that, for an early guilty plea, credit of up to a third off the sentence will be given. So, it appears, the starting point here was in the order of 11 months or so. Essentially the Judge determined that this was not the most serious type of this offence.
Then there was the case of Philip Benwell. And it’s slightly more difficult to gauge what to say about this one. The reporting of it is a bit odd but, it appears, Benwell pleaded guilty to causing GBH (grievous bodily harm) for which the maximum sentence is 5 years. The CPS dropped the furious cycling charge for which the maximum sentence is 2 years. Benwell reportedly jumped onto the pavement to avoid a red light and collided with a 9 year old girl causing life changing injuries. It’s likely that this was a charge based on recklessness rather than intention. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 1 year in prison. From that we can again extrapolate that this was a serious case that started off at around 18 months, reduced by a third, hence the sentence.
And then there was Daryl Gitoes. Weaving in a pedestrian zone with faulty equipment. A guilty plea, 12 months. Not awfully dissimilar, not being on the road aside, with the Alliston case. A not guilty plea would have seen a sentence of around 18 months.
And that’s about as much as we have to go on. Alliston’s case is different because he pleaded not guilty, caused there to be a trial (which Mrs Briggs’ family then had to attend) and, it seems, showed absolutely no remorse. There can be no credit for his plea because he pleaded not guilty. Against that is the backdrop that it is quite rare, for such ‘lesser’ offences, to be sentenced at the maximum. There is always some mitigation to be found. So, for example, in this most heinous of cases, a sentence of 10 yrs and 3 months was handed down where the maximum tariff was 14 years. That said, this was a guilty plea with some reduction, though it’s not clear how much. There were also several other charges and, crucially, 2 cyclists were killed. Because of the totality principle, most of the offences were dealt with concurrently. For more details check back on my previous articles. That case has no relevance to the present one other than as a particularly important reminder that you don’t often get the maximum.
The Judge sentencing Alliston had, to a certain extent, free reign. There will have been a pre-sentence report. It was claimed he suffered PTSD, but that was apparently kicked back by the Judge. There are such things as sentencing precedents but only generally where that case has proceeded to appeal. Fortunately some of those cases have been the subject of an appeal so they can be looked at in terms of setting a precedent. We can draw some parallels and some distinguishing features. We know that the other cyclists were meeting that definition of ‘furious.’ They were, it seems, riding like a ‘bat out of hell’ and, crucially, on the pavement. There was no allegation, braking distances aside, that Alliston was driving other than within the speed limit (the Judge finding as a fact that it was around 20mph), accepting that limits are limits and not targets and that they won’t always be appropriate. The conviction seems to turn on the absence of that brake. My view is that the jury did not convict him of the manslaughter charge because that would be too unusual, too harsh, though they could have on all the same evidence. We know that Mrs Briggs was where she should not have been. So, there are differences. Alliston was cycling where he should, as he should but without a mechanism to brake.
Anyhow, the sentence is 18 months. Because of his age that is to be served in a young offender’s institution. Better than prison? Well, that depends on which one. The Judge balanced the aggravating and mitigating factors and clearly chose not to impose the maximum. If Alliston had pleaded guilty that 18 months would have become at least 12 months and, possibly, less. So, the Judge may well have found Alliston’s comments on social media afterwards to be aggravating. Had he shown remorse he may well have been treated very similarly to the cases above. But, we will never know.
Cue the outrage. You’d get less for burglary or robbery. Well, yes. You could do. There are certainly other possible sentences there depending on the facts. Equally you could go away for a very long time. Naturally, it depends. Comparing other offences isn’t particularly useful. And, I have to say, such comparisons really are an afront to the fact that there was a death here. How can that be forgotten?
There’s an outcry too that motorists get away with it. But is that really true? In the majority of cases, depending on the facts, motorists charged with death dangerous driving go to prison. Ditto death by careless under the influence. It’s only when you get down to death by careless that you start to see a divergence of sentencing options. Have a look at this report from Road Peace here.
So, we have a furore. A case which reaches the second highest story on the BBC and one which sends me a text alert as breaking news. If this is a man bites dog case then, clearly, it’s a novel and interesting one. But, is it? A road user has been convicted using laws that are available. Indeed, the very fact of his conviction demonstrates that the legal tools are there and available. This is the very example of a working system.
But I remain uneasy. That Wayne Rooney’s story of being 3 times over the drink drive limit does not warrant Alliston’s column inch-age is troubling. That any pedestrian death by car driver is unreported and normalised is troubling. Conversely, it would be perhaps perverse of me to argue that this case does not warrant discussion because it’s just one more road death is, of itself, normalising. The very definition of a quandary.
Ultimately, for me this case demonstrates an unhealthy obsession with the man bites dog story and I can’t help thinking that this is yet another step in the justification for treating vulnerable road users with less respect, because once upon a time they saw one go through a red light or because they’d read about this bloke riding an illegal bike on the internet.
UPDATE : You can find the Judge’s sentencing remarks here. Have a read, it’s worthwhile as it deals with how Judges come to these sorts of decisions. Helmet comments aside it’s a very interesting summing up and really is damning when it comes to that moment of impact.
POSTSCRIPT: The more I’ve read about the reaction to this case the more depressed about the state of our legal education I have become. I’ve seen attacks on the Judge, attacks on the system, the CPS, the Police. I’ve seen no attacks, quite rightly, on the jury who heard all the evidence. I’ve seen a fundamental misunderstanding of how our criminal law system works. It’s difficult. Why would you know how these things work in the absence of an interest in them or being involved in the ‘system.’ And, that sort of thing, the complete absence of any inkling about procedure, is indicative of the society in which we now find ourselves. Twitter is awash with comparisons, cases where car drivers have got away with it, flawed examples because, in those cases, a jury, having heard all the evidence, chose to acquit. In this case, whatever your view of the stopping distance facts, a jury sat there, heard it all, heard the Defendant give evidence, watched the CCTV. And, in balancing all that out, acquitted Alliston of manslaughter.
It’s still argued that no motorist would face the charge Alliston has. And that’s broadly because there’s no need, we have careless driving laws. A driver who kills will be charged with dangerous driving. If convicted this would be a duplicate charge, if acquitted then he’s likely to be acquitted in relation to wanton and furious too. There’s a danger here that we try to compare the incomparable. In relation to sentencing, there’s probably some mileage in trying to compare leniency. In relation to charging or acquittal, it’s really quite difficult. This case isn’t a judicial precedent. It’s not a charging precedent, it’s not a conviction precedent. There is no precedent for any of those matters. It’s a case which has probably demonised cyclists more than they currently are. But for every cyclists who shouts so loudly about the outcome consider how often this has happened, consider what did happen, consider that a husband has lost his wife. Before you shout establishment stitch up, think about that.