Pregnant woman receives suspended sentence for assaulting police officer

Pregnant woman receives suspended sentence for assaulting police officer

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Clayton (c) Evening Gazette

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).

What happened?

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.

Sentence

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.”‘

Comment

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!

9 COMMENTS

  1. I’m sure it would be unpopular amongst the Daily Mail set … but I would be in favour of a change in the thinking around suspended sentences. Instead of (as it appears) the judge thinking “is there a reason I should suspend this sentence” for short (say below 24 month) sentences the reverse should be the case and the question is “is there a reason NOT to suspend this sentence”. We send too many people to prison for short periods which benefits no one in terms of keeping people safe and reducing offending.

    Of course you would need to (re)introduce a proper probation service who would work though offenders behaviour and carry out rehabilitation.

  2. Anyone who knows magistrates’ courts knows that to most of the clientele the only custodial sentence is one that ends up in a prison van. You could sentence them to life in the salt mines in Siberia (if only!) but as long as it was suspended it would not count.

    So while Ms Breeze should have said “immediate custodial sentences” she was not otherwise wrong.

  3. 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! – that comment is ludicrous. Are police officer’s, and more importantly the federation which supports it’s junior rank officers not allowed to comment on matters regarding their members? Indeed, they should be allowed to highlight the clear failures in the system. Lawyers and judges are not above any sort of criticism, and that may be a reason why the entire legal profession is mistrusted by vast swathes of the public. The idea that this is a custodial sentence is plainly stupid. No member of the public would view this as a custodial sentence, and saying so is insulting their intelligence. This has just been a way by the government to say that a person has been punished and received a ‘custodial’ sentence when they have received no such thing. I hope that the police criticise more of the pathetic sentences handed out.

    • Thanks for your comment. I won’t be as rude as to say your comment is “ludicrous”, but I will say that in my opinion it misunderstands the suspended sentence. The suspended sentence is a custodial sentence – where the court determines an offence crosses the custody threshold, they will decide the length of sentence based on the seriousness of the offence. IF it is 2 years or less, then there is the option to suspend. A suspended sentence is therefore calculated in exactly the same way as an immediate custodial sentence. The decision to suspend currently involves a wide discretion on the part of the sentencer. The custodial sentence hangs over the head of the offender for the duration and there is a presumption that it will be activated upon a breach. So I would say quite clearly that a suspended sentence is a custodial sentence – just one that has not taken effect. Do we not want fewer people in prison?

      • Of course we want fewer people in prison, but as long as people are sitting in cells because they were impolite on Twitter, we’re not going to get there any time soon.

      • Legally you are correct regarding it being a custodial sentence. However the judge did seem to go out of the way to get period to a length where they could suspend it. For all intents and purposes this was not a custodial sentence and to try and say anything else is a little disingenuous. I find it strange that you seem to want to defend this woman’s actions and those of the Judge. No doubt you bleeding heart liberal lefty Guardianistas would want the police officer in jail immediately had he hit her with a baton during the fight.
        We certainly want fewer people in prison, but perhaps putting the right people in prison would be a good start. There again we are all aware that the left don’t really want anyone in prison. Murdered someone ? No jail time for you – we can rehabilitate you through the medium of dance.

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