Four Years for Two Drunk Driving Deaths. Is it Fair?

sentencing for drunk driving deathsSentencing gets little attention from the public. We tend to care about verdicts; the tense moment in a courtroom drama is the one where “guilty” or “not guilty” is read out loud.

But when a defendant is guilty, the true outcome of a trial is the sentencing. And that outcome can be as surprising and, to some, infuriating as the verdict itself.

The sentencing of Ethan Couch, the “affluenza teen,” caused a scandal in April. A recent case in Rockville, Maryland seems to have touched the same raw nerve. Samuel Ellis was sentenced to 4 years in prison and 16 years’ probation after pleading guilty to two counts of vehicular manslaughter. He had been arrested after losing control of his car, which had been going more than 100 miles per hour, and crashing it, killing two passengers. He was 17 at the time.

During probation Ellis will have to do community service and use an ignition interlock, or car breathalyzer, a device which prevents a vehicle from starting if the driver has been drinking.

Victims’ families and others found the verdict outrageous for a number of reasons apart from the deaths themselves. Ellis was manifestly unrepentant, and had been arrested several times before for alcohol-related offenses.

With young offenders, a judge needs to balance three factors:

  • the harm the crime has caused
  • the effect the crime has had on the victims loved ones and their community
  • the possibility of rehabilitation

Part of that deliberation is the fact that the offender is young, and has his life ahead of him. He would certainly come out of jail a different person after 20 years in prison – but would that be the best way to balance the factors above?

The judge thought not. He apparently felt that a shorter sentence, followed by probation, would give a young man a chance to live a useful life. Ellis’s lawyer claimed that his personality has changed in the last two years since the incident.

What is clear is that the 4-year sentence will never satisfy the families of the two boys, Alex Murk and Calvin Li, who died in the crash.

The best possible outcome given the sentence would be if Ellis were able to contemplate his behavior while in prison and realize the magnitude of his crime. Then, perhaps his community service will help him understand his community from a perspective less self-centered than that of an arrogant teenager.

The ignition interlock will continue to prevent him from getting back on the road while impaired. And perhaps it will help him confront any alcohol issues he might have.

There is no good aftermath following a drunk driving incident that ends so tragically. There can only be some justice, some healing, and some prevention. Let’s hope that the judge got the first one right so the others can happen.