Motorist jailed for nine years for causing death by dangerous driving has sentence reduced on appeal

A motorist who was sentenced to nine years imprisonment after pleading guilty to causing death by dangerous driving has had his custodial term reduced on appeal.

Murray Geddes was jailed for nine years, that period having been reduced by two years to reflect the early plea, and was disqualified from driving for 12 years and ordered to sit the extended driving test.

However, the Criminal Appeal Court reduced the sentence to one of six years after ruling that the “starting point” of 11 years was too high.

The Lord Justice Clerk, Lord Carloway (pictured) - sitting with Lord Bracadale and Lord Malcolm - heard that in September 2014 at the High Court in Edinburgh, the appellant, who was 37 at the time, pled guilty to a charge which libelled that on 16 May 2014 on the A941 Craigellachie to Rothes Road he caused the death of Graeme Ross McKenzie - his friend and the passenger in the vehicle - by driving a car dangerously at excessive speed, having consumed an excessive amount of alcohol.

In selecting the appropriate level of imprisonment, the sentencing judge sought to apply the Definitive Guideline on Causing Death by Driving, published by the English Sentencing Guidelines Council in July 2008.

This first involves identifying the “level” of the offence, within three groups by reference to defined criteria, with each level prescribing a “starting point” and a “sentencing range”.

It was not disputed that the appellant’s driving fell within the most serious group (level 1), being one of: “The most serious offences encompassing driving that involved a deliberate decision to ignore (or a flagrant disregard for) the rules of the road and an apparent disregard for the great danger being caused to others”.

This produced a sentencing range of between seven and 14 years, with a starting point of eight years custody.

The judge then increased the headline figure to 11 years, having identified relevant aggravating factors, which included the manner of the appellant’s driving, the amount of alcohol consumed, his repeated driving while under the influence of alcohol, his awareness that he ought not to have been driving in his condition and generally his driving not being simply a “momentary aberration”.

He next looked at the mitigating factors, including the absence of a particularly bad record. There were also testimonials to his “good character” and work ethic, but the appellant did have the previous conviction for speeding.

Taking these factors into account, which he considered balanced each other, the judge did not consider that there was a basis for reducing the headline figure further.

However, the grounds of appeal were essentially that the judge’s selection of nine years imprisonment was “excessive”, having regard to the starting point of eight years for a level 1 offence in the guideline.

It was submitted that the judge erred in increasing the starting point to 11 years on account of what were said to be aggravating factors, as these factors were those which made the offence a level 1 case in the first place.

It was argued that “too much weight” had been placed on the appellant’s previous speeding conviction, which had been dealt with by way of a fine and penalty points in the JP court.

Furthermore, it was submitted that the discount applied had “not been sufficient” and that the period of 12 years disqualification would be excessive, if the custodial sentence had been too lengthy.

Allowing the appeal against sentence, the judges observed that there was “considerable force” in the appellant’s submissions regarding the sentencing judge’s application of the guidelines.

Delivering the opinion of the court, the Lord Justice Clerk said: “It is important to observe that, while the court has encouraged sentencing judges to ‘have regard’ to the English guideline in death by dangerous driving cases, it has not said that it should ‘be interpreted and applied in a mechanistic way’.

“Once the offence was categorised as level 1, because of the nature of the driving and the consumption of alcohol, it became illegitimate in terms of the guideline to augment the sentence by taking the same matters into account as aggravating factors.

“In short, even following the strictures of the guideline, the starting point ought to have been increased to no more than nine years (having regard to the recent speeding conviction).

“At that point, the fact that the deceased had been a close friend of the appellant ought to have been taken into account as an ‘additional mitigating factor’, before the appellant’s genuine remorse came into play as personal mitigation. These mitigatory factors would have reduced the headline figure to no more than eight years.

“The selection of the appropriate discount is primarily a matter for the sentencing judge. Having regard to the headline sentence of eight years now selected, the court considers that a discount of two years is appropriate; thereby reducing the sentence to one of six years.”

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