Section 24 - Attempting the Impossible: Episode 29 of the Ideablawg Podcasts on the Criminal Code of Canada

In the previous podcast we tackled the possibilities but in this podcast we will discuss the impossibilities. Section 24 of the Criminal Code pertains to attempts to commit an offence in an “attempt” to clarify what it means under our criminal law to commit an attempt of a crime. The difficulty with an attempt crime can be traced back to the essential elements of a crime and to the reluctance of the criminal law to attach liability to “evil thoughts.” Thus, in criminal law is the requirement that for a crime to be committed there must be both a prohibited act or actus reus and a criminal intent or mens rea as highlighted by the Latin maxim actus non facit reum, nisi mens sit rea, which translates to “there is no guilty act, without a guilty mind.” Not only must these two elements be present for a crime but they must also coincide.

A good example is the entertaining 1968 UK case of Fagan v Metropolitan Police Force in which Fagan accidentally rolled onto a police officer’s foot but once he realized he had done so, he swore at the police officer and turned off his car. After a few agonizing moments, Fagan turned on his car and rolled off of the officer’s foot. Fagan was charged and convicted of assault police. On appeal, Fagan tried to argue that there was no assault in law as his criminal intent or mens rea did not manifest itself until after the prohibited act or actus reus of rolling onto the officer’s foot. The House of Lords found this argument too narrow and explained that the prohibited act can be a continuing action and indeed in Fagan’s case they found that from the time Fagan rolled onto the foot to the time he subsequently rolled off was one continuing transaction, during which  Fagan formed the criminal intent.

So what does this great case narrative have to do with attempts? In the case of attempts it becomes very difficult to know when the actus reus and the mens rea coincide as the prohibited act is a subtle one and falls short of the actual criminal act. Indeed, attempts are known as incomplete or inchoate (not fully formed) crimes. There are other crimes, which fall under this incomplete or unfulfilled category such as counseling to commit a crime not committed under s. 464 and conspiracy under s. 465. The issue then is identifying when an act of attempt occurs as it is not the completed act and yet it is also not the mere thinking of the act as that would criminalize mere evil intentions. Thus, an attempt takes place before the completion of the intended crime but the Courts must decide at what point the attempt is complete and criminal liability will attach. Something more is required and section 24 instructs us on how that “something more” is determined in a criminal case.

Section 24 has two subsections and reads as follows:

24(1) Every one who, having an intent to commit an offence, does or omits to do anything for the purpose of carrying out the intention is guilty of an attempt to commit the offence whether or not it was possible under the circumstances to commit the offence.

(2) The question whether an act or omission by a person who has an intent to commit an offence is or is not mere preparation to commit the offence, and too remote to constitute an attempt to commit the offence, is a question of law.

Other than s. 463, which we will get to much much later and deals with the punishment for an attempt, s. 24 is the only section in the Code dealing with attempts. The difficulty is that this section doesn’t exactly tell us what it means to commit an attempt of an offence. The section does however give some legal clues, which the courts have then used together with common law interpretations of attempts to fill in the doctrinal meaning of “attempt.” From subsection (2), and from case law, we can say that an attempt is complete when the accused person’s actions go beyond “mere preparation.” This usually means the next step done with the intent to commit the crime, after preparation is complete. There also must be proximity in time between the act and the intention.

Who decides when preparation is complete? Subsection 2 tells us that it is the trial judge, who determines this issue as a question of law. Therefore, if a jury tries the matter, the trial judge will instruct the jury on this issue. The jury, as triers of fact, will then apply the legal principles to the facts to determine if the accused is guilty or not guilty of the attempt.

Not only does the prohibited act for an attempt require specific findings based in law but the intention required for an attempt is specific as well. The mens rea required for an attempt is the mens rea required for the completed offence. But in the case of attempt murder, the intention required is the highest level of subjective mens rea under s.229(a)(i), intention to kill, and not the slightly relaxed intention under s. 229(a)(ii).

I am now going to add my own narrative to this issue by relating the circumstances of the first case I did as a lawyer. I was called to the Bar in March and within the week, I was representing a client charged with an attempt break and enter. Certainly, one can envision an attempt break and enter – for example here are the facts from the 1986 Alberta Court of Appeal Gochanour case wherein a homeowner was awakened by noises at her living room window and when she looked out the window she saw the exterior screen was ripped open and someone was running from her residence. In my client’s case, the allegation was that the client, who was under the influence of alcohol at the time, was found in a fairly upscale neighbourhood with a stick in his hand. The police found scratches around the lock of a front door of a nearby house. The client was discharged at the preliminary hearing but as we can see from s.24(1), not on the basis of impossibility – as it is impossible to open a locked door with a stick – but because a properly instructed jury acting reasonably could find no evidence that the client used the stick for the purpose of committing a break and enter of a residence.

Impossibility is therefore not a defence to an attempt and therefore one cannot argue that because the completed offence was not possible, the accused must be acquitted of the attempt to commit the impossible offence. This proposition holds true whether or not the offence was legally or factually possible. But, as we will discover this does not necessarily hold true, for practical purposes, for every charge.

Let me wrap up the discussion of section 24 by offering some thought-provoking examples. A pickpocket who attempts to steal from an empty pocket is still liable to be charged for an attempt theft. Although this is legally fair, the question may be is it morally right? Should someone in that position face a possible criminal record and/or jail?

Here are some offences in which one may not be able to be charged with an attempt – even though according to s. 24 charges are possible. It is difficult to conceive of an attempt to commit a criminal negligence under s.219 – although this may be a too simplistic conundrum - it is hard to imagine how someone can attempt to be negligent. It is also difficult to conceive an attempt to be found in a common bawdy house according to s. 201(2)(a). How can someone attempt to be found in a place as required by the section? We can also apply this concept outside of the Criminal Code and to the quasi-criminal regulatory field. Can someone attempt to speed? Can someone attempt to commit an absolute liability offence, which requires no intention at all? Or in the regulatory field, can the defence argue that attempt charges are indeed not possible as they would be inconsistent with the spirit and purpose of those regulatory acts or that pursuant to, the enabling provincial statutes such a concept is inconsistent with the Act. For example, the defence could rely on s. 3 of the Provincial Offences Procedure Act or for federal acts s. 5 of the Contraventions Act, which provide for the application of the Criminal Code to regulatory offences as long as such sections are not inconsistent with the regulatory Acts. Of course, the contrary argument might be that those regulatory statutes are procedural while the concept of an attempt is a substantive issue. What has been made clear by case law is that someone cannot be charged with an attempt to commit an incomplete crime such as mentioned earlier in this podcast – counseling to commit a crime not completed and a conspiracy. So in the end, perhaps there is a defence to the impossible!



Episode 29 of the Ideablawg Podcast on the Criminal Code of Canada - Section 24 - Attempting the Impossible