Monday, September 19, 2011

Legal relativism

Here in Israel, serious traffic accidents often receive extensive media coverage, particularly if they are hit-and-run accidents. Last Friday morning, a woman was killed by a car that had been reported as driving dangerously just minutes earlier. The car's driver and passenger offered no assistance to the victim, did not report the accident, returned home, and fled the country. They returned to France, from where they had recently moved to Israel, with their families. There is no extradition treaty between Israel and France, and people accused of a crime in one country can only be extradited to the other by special dispensation. There is now some public pressure in Israel for this to be done in this case. It is also possible that the driver could be tried in France under French law, even though the crime was committed abroad.

When asked why he had left the country, the driver explained that in Israel he would be sentenced to 20 years in prison, while in France the sentence would be significantly lower. I have tried to find details about the penalties for driving offences in France, and it appears that causing death by dangerous driving would be punishable by a minimum of five years imprisonment, while hit-and-run would add another two years imprisonment. From what I have read, the 20 year sentence in Israel is the maximum penalty for killing someone in a hit-and-run accident. The law cannot treat such cases as murder, but considers them more serious than negligent killing, which only receives a penalty of three years imprisonment. When a driver abandons a pedestrian, this is considered a serious offence, because in some cases, the victim's life could be saved by immediate intervention, and anyone ignoring the fate of an injured person is potentially contributing to their death.

This case made me wonder why there are such significant differences between the levels of punishment for identical crimes in different countries. It seems to me that the legal system of each society reflects, to some extent, the values and norms of that society. The legal system can also be used by legislators to modify the public's behaviour and perception of certain behaviours.

Does this mean that French legislators or French society consider driving dangerously, killing a pedestrian, driving off, and not reporting the accident a much less serious crime than Israeli legistlators or Israeli society do? I have no way of knowing. From what I know about Israeli law, the punishments are relatively severe as a deterrent. The percentage of fatal and serious traffic accidents here, relative to the population, or to the number of cars, or the length of the roads (three different ways of comparing accident rates) is higher than in many western countries, and continuous efforts are being made to improve safety and prevent accidents.

In an ideal world, I believe most countries would share similar values, at least regarding things like traffic accidents. If countries had more similar laws and punishments, perhaps there would be fewer cases of criminals fleeing justice in the country where the crime was committed in the hope of evading punishment, or at least serving a smaller sentence, in another country.

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