The accident and the law

Print edition : September 06, 1997

SEVEN photographers, six of them French and one Macedonian, were detained for questioning following the accident that killed Princess Diana, Dodi Al Fayed and the driver of the car. Photographic film in their possession was seized. They could face criminal charges.

Paris lawyer Jean-Charles Debain explained to Frontline the legal implications of their detention:

"From what I have observed so far, it appears that the French Government is determined to make an example of these paparazzi. The first thing that strikes me as a lawyer is the fact that a criminal investigation has been ordered. This was clearly an accident and the Brigade Criminelle has been called in. These are special units of the French police and they are called in only in cases of political assassinations or terrorist attacks. So, that is the first unusual aspect of the case.

"Legally speaking, these photographers could be booked under several Articles of the French Penal Code. Under Article 63, they could be accused of "non-assistance to a person in danger." Under Article 319 of the Penal Code they could be charged with homicide involontaire, or manslaughter. Thirdly, they could be charged under the Code de la Route, the traffic regulations. The crime in this case would be that of putting another person's life in danger. And finally, the last criminal charge that could be brought against these photographers would be delit de fuite, or running away from the scene of an accident.

"The punishments vary and can be accompanied by huge fines. For manslaughter, for instance, the prison sentence can be anything between three months to two years and the fines range from 1,000 francs to 30,000 francs. For non-assistance to a person in danger, a person can be fined up to 20,000 francs and given a prison term that can be anything from three months to five years.

"Of course, the family can also file a civil suit, as the Al Fayed family has decided to do. Under the Code Civile they could file a complaint for non-respect of a person's private life. This is under Article 9 of the Code Civile which was enacted in July 1970. Under this Article, the victim can claim damages and interest and the sums involved can be huge, depending upon the discretion of the judge.

"In order to book the photographers, the police will have to prove that the photographers tried to overtake the car or to block it. From what I can gather so far, it appears to have been a genuine accident. The photographers were giving chase but they were a fair distance away. I think the prosecution will try to argue its case based on several elements:

that by giving chase the photographers obliged the driver of the Mercedes to speed and take unnecessary risks, putting lives in danger. that this led directly to the deaths of the occupants of the car. Thus he could attempt to translate the crime of endangering someone's life into a crime of manslaughter. that those who were on the scene tried to run away immediately following the crash. that while taking pictures of the car with the bodies still trapped in it, they failed to give assistance to someone in danger of losing his or her life."

"By using all these provisos of the law, a case could be made and charges could be brought under one section or another," concluded Jean-Charles Debain.

But according to another lawyer, Olivier Serra, the matter is not that simple. "There are two aspects to the case. First, to what extent were the photographers physically responsible for the crash? Several details have emerged which might actually weaken the case of the prosecution. The car was travelling at a terrific speed at a place which is known to be dangerous. Secondly, the car was being driven by the Ritz hotel's security manager and not by a professional chauffeur. The paparazzi were a fair distance from the car. They were not apparently trying to overtake it, nor were they blocking it."

"Of course it is too early to speculate in this manner because we still do not have the testimony of Diana's bodyguard and that will be of prime importance in order to establish the exact circumstances under which the accident took place," concluded Olivier Serra.

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