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Viewing Corpses And Other Odd Punishments For Bad Drivers

By Aaron Crowe

Viewing corpses in a morgue as part of a four-hour course on the ramifications of drunk driving isn’t the best way to spend an afternoon, but it beats going to jail.

That and other programs that judges impose on people convicted of drunken driving or other driving offenses are meant to discourage recidivism. Lesser offenses can have sentences less imposing than looking at dead bodies, but can be just as creative.

An Ohio judge made national news last year when he sentenced a woman who was caught in a video driving on a sidewalk around a stopped school bus to wear a sign reading “Only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”

Another Ohio judge required a drunk driver who ran a stop sign and nearly killed a couple to view bodies of car crash fatalities. He dropped the man’s jail sentence from 65 days to five days if he viewed two dead bodies from car accidents.

In California, the Hospital and Morgue Program, or HAM, does the same type of thing and is aimed at youthful offenders. At the end, offenders must write a 500-word essay on how the course has changed their life and give their opinion about driving under the influence.

“It’s a very common punishment in Los Angeles County,” says Christopher McCann, a DUI defense attorney there.

But because offenders might not see a drunken driving victim who was killed, and instead see the body of a victim from an accident where alcohol wasn’t involved, it might not have the same effect, McCann says.

“I really don’t think it does anything,” he says of not seeing a drunken driving victim.

“If it’s not someone who was killed by a drunken driver, it’s really just a theoretical in your mind anyway,” he says.

What such sentencing may not be doing, however, is having a long-term impact, says Jeffrey Reynolds, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

“Viewing corpses and other shock techniques may have a short-term impact, but the images quickly fade, especially for those struggling with alcoholism,” Reynolds wrote in an email. “Requiring multi-session educational workshops (conducted over the span of 8-12 weeks) is far more productive, especially when paired with an addiction screening and access to chemical dependency treatment where indicated.

“While not everyone who drives drunk is an alcoholic, the level of untreated addiction in our communities is significant and a trip to the morgue won’t cure that.”

Reynolds says he recently saw a TV station in his area report that a 24-year-old driver who was high and found to have heroin on him crashed head-on into a young woman who had a newborn baby in her car. Police handcuffed him and made him watch her and her baby being cut from her car for an hour.

“Not a bad idea,” Reynolds wrote, “but at the end of the day, this is a guy who in addition to being punished, needs treatment if the rest of us are going to be truly safe when he eventually gets out of jail.”

Lori Freson, a therapist in Encino, Calif., says she heard of a situation where a driver had to write a check for $1 every week to the family of the victim he killed. The idea was that he’d be reminded every week of what he did and that he hopefully wouldn’t do it again.

While HAM is common in L.A., some judges may not want to impose creative sentencing such as having an offender carry a sign around for a day because it could get them attention and the presiding judge could frown on it, McCann says. But it could also work in favor of a judge seeking re-election.

“It makes good politics,” McCann says. “People like the sound of it.”


Aaron Crowe is a personal finance writer who writes about auto insurance for