The Pham Decision And The Human Face of Sentencing

Mr. Justice Doherty of the Court of Appeal for Ontario reminds us, in his decisions, that there is a human factor at play in the criminal law. It is not just concerned with legal maxims and the “golden thread,” but also with the real individuals who are affected by the criminal justice system. In learning and discussing criminal law issues, it is vitally important to be aware that the law works in a human environment.

For example, in a previous posting, I discussed the N.S. Ontario Court of Appeal decision on testifying behind the veil, which Justice Doherty authored on behalf of the court. In that decision, he remarked on the devastating effect the sexual assault trial will have on both the victim and the accused: for the victim, the humiliating prospect of describing her most intimate details and, for the accused, the prospect of a long period of incarceration if convicted and, if acquitted, the taint of being suspected of such a horrific crime.

The spectre of humanity raises itself yet again in the Pham case, a sentencing decision from the Alberta Court of Appeal, to be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada this Friday on January 18, 2013. In this case, the issue is whether or not the extraordinary effects of a sentence imposed in a deportation context should be considered when a trial judge sentences an accused to, what would be otherwise, an appropriate sentence. Specifically at issue is the length of the sentence to be imposed considering the accused was subject to the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, which extinguishes an applicant’s right of appeal under the Act should that person be subject to a term of imprisonment of “at least” two years. Pham was indeed sentenced to a term of two years incarceration for his participation in drug offences for which he already had a criminal record.

Outside of immigration issues, there is a significant difference between a sentence of two years and a sentence of two years less a day: two years signifies time to be spent in the Federal prison system, while two years less a day permits the sentence to be served in provincial institutions. Because of the significance, there is more than just twenty-four hours at risk: Federal time, viewed as “harder” than Provincial time, means that some crimes require the denunciation which Federal time can provide. Therefore, in sentencing the accused to an appropriate period of time, the significance of federal vs. provincial imprisonment is taken into account. The trial judge would ask; does this crime warrant time in a Federal institution? Is Federal time an appropriate sentence in light of known sentencing principles?

To add into this discussion the issue of immigration seems to distort the process or so the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal seemed to find. In their view, if the sentence imposed is appropriate, the appellate courts should not tamper with the sentence for the sole reason of preserving an immigration right. Considering all factors relating to the sentencing of Pham, the majority found the two year sentence to be fit in the circumstances.

The dissent or what I call loosely “the dissent,” as Justice Martin starts on the same premise as the majority, found that:

those with a criminal record who are sentenced to imprisonment for two years or more should not usually have their sentence reduced, even by a day, simply to enable them the right to appeal a deportation order.” However, the Crown consented to the appeal, agreeing that the sentence could be reduced by a day for immigration purposes, as the trial Crown presented just such a sentence on a joint submission before the trial judge.

So, the end result is that the SCC will have to decide whether or not immigration issues matter and if so, to what extent and in what circumstances. They will also need to consider the fitness of a sentence in relation to two years or two years less a day – are these sentences truly significantly different? The decision may also impact other sentencing considerations, such as granting a discharge as opposed to entering a conviction where the accused’s employment requires cross-border movement. A conviction, in those circumstances, may bar an accused from entry into the USA. As seen in the Bertuzzi case, such allowances for hockey players is not uncommon.

Now let us go back to Justice Doherty’s human factor as his on point decision in 2004 Hamilton case was referred to in the Pham majority decision. In that case, the accused were, what is commonly known as “drug mules,” women who due to extreme circumstances are induced into breaking the law by being cross-border drug couriers. It must be noted that both women in the case did not have prior drug convictions as in Pham. Justice Doherty made the following comments:

The imposition of a fit sentence can be as difficult a task as any faced by a trial judge. That task is particularly difficult where otherwise decent, law abiding persons commit very serious crimes in circumstances that justifiably attract understanding and empathy. These two cases fall within that category of cases.” And later stated “would not characterize the loss of a potential remedy against a deportation order that might be made a mitigating factor on sentence. I do think, however, that in a case like Ms. Mason’s there is room for consideration of the potentially added risk of deportation should the sentence be two years or more. If a trial judge were to decide that a sentence at or near two years was the appropriate sentence in all of the circumstances for Ms. Mason, the trial judge could look at the deportation consequences for Ms. Mason of imposing a sentence of two years less a day as opposed to a sentence of two years. I see this as an example of the human face of the sentencing process. If the future prospects of an offender in the circumstances of Ms. Mason can be assisted or improved by imposing a sentence of two years less a day rather than two years, it is entirely in keeping with the principles and objectives of sentencing to impose the shorter sentence. While the assistance afforded to someone like Ms. Mason by the imposition of a sentence of two years less a day rather than two years may be relatively small, there is no countervailing negative impact on broader societal interests occasioned by the imposition of that sentence.

Hopefully, this “human face of sentencing” will be recalled when the SCC comes to their final decision on this case.