‘Another burden to bear’

October 16, 2017 ,

An unreachable maximum sentence for causing death by dangerous driving does nothing to deter crime – and adds insult to injury for grieving families, argues Kevin Brennan MP

Sophie Taylor was a 22 year old constituent of mine. She was a loving and caring young woman with her whole life ahead of her.

During the early hours of the morning of August 22nd, 2016, Sophie and her friend Joshua Deguara, were chased through the streets of Cardiff by her ex-boyfriend, Michael Wheeler and another driver.

During the chase, Sophie called 999. She was scared and felt unsafe. She was on the phone, talking to an operator for 24 minutes. Then, Wheeler he turned his car to the left, into Sophie’s, causing her car to crash into a block of flats. The collision caused Sophie a catastrophic brain injury which led to her death. Joshua suffered life-changing injuries.

Wheeler pleaded guilty to causing death by dangerous driving though many thought the charge should have been manslaughter. The judge who heard the case at Cardiff Crown Court described what happened that night as ‘nothing more than a pack chasing its prey’.

He added: ‘You were trying to ram her off the road and you did’. Sophie had made several reports to the police and visited the police station in the weeks leading up to her death in relation to problems she was experiencing with Wheeler. We can only imagine Sophie’s family’s loss, and the stress and torment they have endured throughout the legal process.

The maximum sentence for death by dangerous driving at the time of the event was 14 years in custody and the government now say they want to increase it to life. But Michael Wheeler was only sentenced to seven and a half years.

The sentencing following Sophie Taylor’s death poses questions about the frequency and circumstances of the use of a maximum sentence.

The first issue is around how often the maximum sentence is used.

I wrote to the justice secretary to ask how many maximum sentences for causing death by dangerous driving had been handed out in recent years but he did not answer my question. I hope my debate will persuade the government to be more forthcoming.

I am particularly interested in how often this sentence has been given considering that the government’s consultation found that 70 per cent of respondents did not feel that 14 years was long enough.

If the sentence of 14 years is hardly ever used how often would a new increased maximum be used? Would the new maximum have any effect on the average sentence for causing death by dangerous driving? In 2015, with a maximum sentence of 14 years, the average custodial sentence length was 57.1 months.

The second issue is around the circumstances in which the maximum penalty is used.

Given the horrible circumstances of Sophie Taylor’s death and the aggressive actions that led up to it, it is very difficult for her family, or any lay person, to understand why Wheeler was sentenced to roughly half the maximum time in custody. What would someone have to do in relation to causing death by dangerous driving for the maximum sentence to be available if it was not available in this case?

Sentencing guidelines in this case led to an outcome that has not only outraged the victims, families but the wider community. The government needs to be clearer on what it is doing to deter this kind of crime.

Knowing that a life sentence is a real possibility would be a start. Also ensuring that the likelihood of getting caught is increased by properly funding the police is vital.

And the prospect of sentences being increased on appeal when judges are too lenient is very important. Out of 713 such requests in recent years, 136 have resulted in longer sentences but not one has been for the offence of causing death by dangerous driving.

Sophie Taylor’s death was a horrible tragedy, and nothing will relieve her family’s loss. However, the perception that justice was not done because the maximum sentence is unreachable adds another burden to bear.