This story popped up in the Daily Mail on 22nd August 2016 – so you can guess which way this is going…
Lori Clayton, 23, pleaded guilty to s.20 wounding and received 15 months’ imprisonment, suspended for 18 months, with 150 hours of unpaid work and £500 in costs (and presumably a surcharge order).
Unfortunately, it appears to have been a typical night out in a British city – lots of drinking that then descended into violence. PC Sean Clapham – a “plain clothes” officer – was attempting to break up a brawl outside a nightclub in Middlesborough. Clayton, who was drunk, didn’t realise Clapham was a police officer, despite the fact he was holding a police baton, ran across the street towards him and struck him with a bottle. Clapham suffered a cut to the head resulting in a 1.5inch scar and an injury to his ear which also resulted in scarring.
Clayton had reportedly drunk two bottles of rose wine that evening.
The judge imposed a 15 month custodial sentence, but decided to suspend it. The Mail reports that the judge decided to do so on the basis that Clayton is now three months pregnant and that an immediate custodial sentence may do more harm than good. In the plea in mitigation, it was noted that Clayton is no longer drinking (presumably due to the pregnancy).
The Sentencing Guidelines (see p.7) suggest that this is Category 1 case – the victim was vulnerable (a police officer on duty dealing with an incident) and Clayton used a weapon. That gives a starting point of three years six months with a range of two years six months – four years.
If the judge took the bottom of that range, on the basis that (presumably) it was a single blow, Clayton did not realise that the victim was a police officer (as opposed to another member of the public joining in the brawl) and that the injury was not serious in the context of the offence (a small cut resulting in a small scar) the sentence is around two years six months (30 months). With full credit for the guilty plea, that’s reduced to 20 months.
In the event, the judge obviously saw reason to go lower, however the Mail story does not disclose why. The judge also decided to suspend the sentence (presumably) on the basis that Clayton is pregnant and a 15 month immediate sentence (with HDC release, just under half of which would be served) was an unnecessary step.
Comments by the Police
The Mail reported:
“Chairman [of the Cleveland Police Federation] Andrea Breeze said: “This is a very disappointing sentence for a police officer who was merely doing his job.
We should not be subject to such physical unprovoked attacks.
The judicial system needs to start supporting police officers in the execution of their duty and recognising the risks they are subject to every day by imposing custodial sentences.”‘
The comments made by the police federation (perhaps understandably, given they want the continued support and confidence of their members) criticise the sentence, however they display a misunderstanding of the sentencing process.
The court does not pick one or two factors to focus upon – here the fact that a PC was attacked and injured – but instead has to find a balance to reflect all the factors of the case. While these factors often point in different directions (e.g. here, the need to punish and to mark a serious assault on a police officer with a custodial sentence vs imprisoning a pregnant woman and potentially forcing her to give birth while in prison) we suggest that this case was clear cut.
It is important to remember that a judge must first determine the length of the sentence and then only if it under two years may he or she consider whether or not it can be suspended.
The 15-month sentence was a little on the low side (we’d have probably gone for something around 20 to 22 months), however the decision to suspend the sentence is unimpeachable. There is no need to send this woman to prison; no doubt the experience of the process and the publicity around the case will operate as a warning and deterrent against future behaviour.
Oh and one final thing – a suspended sentence is a custodial sentence and so the comments made on behalf of the Police Federation is inaccurate – the judge did impose a custodial sentence. There was a time when police and the prosecution wouldn’t comment on sentencing, taking the view that it was a matter for the court. Sadly those days are gone and we live in the age of the media sound bite!