Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Drunk driver let off 'EASY'
... and in this case, I applaud the judge's decision
Clint Flett drove drunk and badly injured not just himself, but also the wife he adores and a family friend.
A judge has refused to send him to jail for it.
And it was the right thing to do.
Not because drunk drivers who injure and maim people shouldn't get a taste of the clink.
But because, in Flett's case, jailing him would ultimately inflict more harm than accomplish anything by way of good.
It might not cause further harm to Flett, necessarily. But it would to his family and home community of St. Theresa Point, an isolated and disadvantaged reserve 450 kilometres north of the city.
Flett chose to drive after downing 10 beers on the night of April 21, 2012. He had been out dining with his wife and two friends.
He sped through a red light at Waterfront Drive and Provencher Boulevard.
He slammed into a car proceeding properly through on a green. It was a considerable crash. Just by sheer chance, the people in the car he ran into weren't hurt.
That outcome, sadly, wasn't the case for Flett and two of his passengers.
His wife, already ailing and being escorted by Flett around Winnipeg for a medical appointment, suffered a broken hip. Another woman a cracked shoulder blade.
It is your obligation
to make sure this is
the first and last time
you commit a crime
that may take you away from them'
-- Judge Carena Roller
But it was Flett who suffered the worst of the wounds. He had to be rescued by paramedics and had multiple fractures to his neck and spine.
He was found to be more than double the legal limit for driving.
Horrible, right? Of course it is.
And most certainly, what he did was jail-worthy.
But you have to consider who Flett is, the place he comes from and who'd be hurt the most if he was put behind bars for his crime.
As he's a life-long resident of St. Theresa Point, I can only opine that it's something of a minor miracle that this was the 39-year-old's first-ever brush with the law.
His tiny home community is a severely impoverished one. It has long toiled under the ruinous influences of substance abuse, gangs, violence -- the gamut, really, of all things that would make a place to live intolerable.
I've never been to the place, but I asked a friend of mine who spends time there to paint me a picture. He says the landscape is quite beautiful, kind of like Lake of the Woods.
But look more closely and you see trash strewn everywhere, burnt out buildings, gang graffiti, cars junked or barely running. Many live in shacks with no running water. Employment is scarce, but it's a community where chopping wood and fetching water for an extended family can be a full-time job.
People can't be expected to make life choices they didn't know they had.
And for many in STP, I'd surmise there's little beyond sheer survival as the benchmark upon which to base one's choices.
But Flett is a different type of man, it seems.
After his arrest and hospitalization, he didn't just go home and do nothing while on bail.
He got himself into counselling and started attending weekly AA meetings, despite the fact he had absolutely no history of drinking to excess and doesn't identify as an alcoholic.
In addition, he continues to care for his wife -- she has diabetes, significant arthritis and needs help getting around -- and their four young kids.
"(The wife) doesn't know what she'll do if Mr. Flett goes to jail," Judge Carena Roller was told during his sentencing hearing. She recounted this comment in court this week. Roller also described a wealth of evidence before her to show Flett was a "devoted husband and father."
Among the evidence she had to consider were many letters sent to Roller for Flett's sentencing.
One came one from the schoolteacher in his community. She described Flett as a "family man" whose kids needed him home for support of all types.
Even nurses and community leaders from the Island Lake Tribal Council came forward to voice support for him, describing Flett as a "productive and responsible citizen."
Perhaps remarkably, the female passenger he injured also offered him her absolution.
"I have forgave, forgotten and moved on," she wrote in a letter addressed to him. "I hope you do the same," she said.
Roller noted the dim surroundings Flett grew up in as part of her decision, keenly seeing how "that environment must leave its mark on each resident."
It must be said: In drunk driving cases where injuries result, the typical -- but not binding -- range in sentencing is three to 18 months of real jail. Conditional sentences are no longer available.
The issue in Flett's case was whether anything less than a jail stint would suffice if "exceptional circumstances" existed to allow him a lighter sentence.
And yes, Roller said. They do. If he goes to jail, she said, that circumstance causes harm to his wife and kids because they'll have to now fend for themselves in an already tough environment.
Roller imposed upon Flett a $4,000 fine plus three years of supervised probation. Given his limited means, he'll have to work off the fine in his community. Roller also barred him from driving in Canada for two years.
"To decide otherwise would have the very real effect of visiting the consequences of his criminal error on his family," Roller said. "And they would have to find other ways to get their challenging and unique needs met," she said.
"Your family obviously needs you, Mr. Flett. It is your obligation to make sure this is the first and last time you commit a crime that may take you away from them."
To be clear: the judge was clearly aware of how the scourge of drunk driving never seems to abate despite a wealth of effort thrown at education and enforcement.
And there's been wide-spread public sentiment in recent years for courts to begin jailing impaired drivers -- even first offenders who don't hurt anyone.
But sometimes jail, separating them from their circumstances and putting them away to send a "message" does more harm than good in the bigger picture of life.
To me, it's pretty clear in Flett's case that Roller saw the aftershocks were likely to just cause more harm to a community that's already suffering.
And as hard as it may be for some to swallow, I say we should be lauding her for that.
Doing what's right isn't at all the same as doing what's popular.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 26, 2014 A1
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