A special court of three judges, led by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, yesterday overthrew a longstanding sentencing practice of imposing fines for causing death by negligent driving.
"It is important to signal to other drivers that they must be mindful of the terrible risks they take upon themselves and other road users when they drive when not fit to do so," said CJ Menon.
The court made the ruling as it allowed the prosecution's appeal and handed down a four-week jail term to 27-year-old Hue An Li, a sleep-deprived driver who crashed her car into a lorry carrying foreign workers in March last year. The impact caused all nine workers seated in the back to be flung out, killing one on the spot.
Last September, Hue, a casino surveillance officer, pleaded guilty to causing death by a negligent act and was fined the maximum $10,000 and banned from driving for five years.
The prosecution appealed to the High Court, arguing that she should be jailed for her "gross negligence" in driving after she had not slept in 24 hours.
Under the law, the offence carries a jail term of up to two years, or a fine, or both. But, generally, the courts have imposed fines. In a 1993 case, former CJ Yong Pung How ruled that if death was caused by a negligent act, a fine would suffice in most cases.
In Hue's case, the district judge, explaining why he gave her a fine instead of jail, cited the 2012 case of Ng Jui Chuan, who fell asleep at the wheel and hit an elderly couple in Upper Thomson Road in November 2009.
Mr Ng's $9,500 fine was upheld by a High Court judge, who said that driving when one is tired or sleepy is not an offence, but might be one if it had been proved that the tired driver knew he would likely fall asleep at the wheel, and yet drove.
But, yesterday, CJ Menon said these cases have to be viewed with caution and that the sentencing precedents were "unreliable".
He noted that the law was redrafted in 2008. After this, he said, there was no basis to continue on the premise that when death was caused by negligence, the default sentence is a fine.
As for the case of Mr Ng, CJ Menon said this should not be seen as an appropriate sentencing precedent as the remarks of the High Court were in the context of the line between a rash and a negligent act.
The appeal, heard yesterday by the Chief Justice, Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Judicial Commissioner Tan Siong Thye, was the first magistrate's appeal presided over by three judges instead of the usual one judge.
This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.
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