The Creation of Community “Space” in Sentencing in R v Saretzky

The Saretzky case will live in infamy as a disturbing crime that defies description and understanding. In this post, I do not intend to engage in a classic case analysis of the sentencing proceeding, which has been the primary subject of media attention and legal commentary. Certainly, the legal issues raised in this case are of concern as we struggle to make sense of a crime so devoid of humanity yet committed by a person who will now spend seventy-five years in custody, essentially to the end of his days. Is it a crushing sentence which fails to recognize the possibility, no matter how faint, of rehabilitation? Or is mere speculation about rehabilitation an inappropriate, unsafe, and frankly impossible standard to apply? Leaving aside the application of recognized principles of retribution and denunciation, are we comfortable with the reality of this decision, the warehousing of an individual who is a legitimate and continuing threat to society? Should the law be a “beacon of hope” or does “hope” go beyond legal expectations? Although we like to believe that hard cases make bad law, in fact, hard cases force us to look squarely at the worst scenario almost as a litmus indicator to test the strength and flexibility of applicable legal principles. In looking at Saretzky and Justice W. A. Tilleman’s reasons for sentencing, we can properly ask whether our sentencing principles and codified laws are up to the heavy task of assessing the worst case and the worst offender, the twin legal principles supporting the imposition of the maximum sentence.

The answer to all of this may require us to do some navel gazing and philosophizing that takes us outside traditional sentencing principles. It may also require us to explore whether there is a legitimate role in sentencing for the community. When I use the term “community,” I am not referring to bald public opinion as reflected on social media – that, as Justice Wagner cautioned in R v St-Cloud, 2015 SCC 27 (CanLII) at paras 80-84, is far from the considered and reasoned pronouncements of the law. No, community is not who has the most likes on Twitter and speaks the loudest on Facebook. Community or better yet the “community’s sense of justice” can be found in Justice Tilleman’s reasons in the Saretzky sentencing. Community bonds, communal mourning and healing all have a “space” in the Saretzky decision. It is my contention that the community’s place in the bounded space of the courtroom is connected to the judge’s now enhanced and expanded duty to protect the integrity of the administration of justice and to maintain trust and confidence in the criminal justice system. With this shift to community however, we must be ever mindful of our principles of fundamental justice which protect the individual offender as part of that community. We must rely on the delicate balance of sentencing to calibrate the scales of justice to ensure fair and just sentences.

In the first sentence, Justice Tilleman speaks through the offender to the community – not the community writ large but the community of Crowsnest Pass, a small district in southwestern Alberta with a population of a little over 5,500 people consisting of a string of even smaller communities, such as Frank, Blairmore, and Coleman, all hugging Highway 3 as it winds through the pass and into the British Columbia Rockies. It is a small community with big history. It is a community with memory of disaster. It was here in 1903 where the tip of Turtle Mountain tumbled into the town of Frank thereby defining a community through devastation and loss. It is here that Canadian opera found a voice in the tragic story of Filumena, a young woman convicted of the murder of an RCMP officer during the prohibition era. This and many other stories create the community, the community which Justice Tilleman addresses nineteen times throughout the sentencing reasons. These are the people of Crowsnest Pass whom Justice Tilleman, before asking Derek Saretzky to stand for the imposition of sentence, encourages to heal and move forward. He encourages them to “rebuild” and recreate another iteration of themselves as community, an image not defined by inexplicable tragedy (para 58).

Community also speaks to the offender in this decision. The jury of peers, charged with the difficult and awesome task of determining guilt or innocence, are representative of the shared community of the offender and the victims. It is through the jury process that community members, utilizing the legally embossed analytical tools given to them by the trial judge, engage in community decision making. In the words of Justice Addy in R v Lane and Ross, [1970] 1 OR 681, 1969 CanLII 545 (ON SC) (p 279), juries are the “bulwark of our democratic system and a guarantee of our basic freedoms under the law.” They are also part of the sentencing discourse through their parole ineligibility recommendations, and, in the Saretzky case, they unanimously urged the imposition of consecutive terms totalling 75 years of parole ineligibility (para 24).

Community also defines the victims. Justice Tilleman humanizes the deceased (para 48) through the lens of community as he circumscribes their community space and place by describing “Hanne Meketech—a community elder and dear friend,” and “Terry Blanchette—a young man and father,” and lastly “Hailey Dunbar-Blanchette, an innocent child.” Thus, Justice Tilleman monumentally memorializes their lives in relation to what these victims of violence meant to their community.

The approach taken in this sentencing, the bringing in of community to a forum traditionally partitioned off from community, evokes the Indigenous model for restorative justice as envisioned in R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688, 1999 CanLII 679 (SCC) at para 74 and as skillfully employed by Justice Nakatsuru throughout R v Armitage, 2015 ONCJ 64 (CanLII). This model requires more investigation as we learn from and embrace Indigenous culture, thought, and sense of community. It also brings to mind specialized international courts, such as the traditional Rwandan gacaca courts, which empower community as a step to repairing past harms.

These approaches, superficially, differ greatly from the English common law tradition and often sit uneasily within our sentencing principles geared toward the criminal sanction. But on closer examination, all sentencing approaches cause us to investigate the space, place, and boundaries of the judicial function in the larger sense. Hard cases such as Saretzky require us to reconcile the role of the trial judge, who is at once the arbiter of the facts and purveyor of the law whilst also the guardian and representative of the community’s fundamental values. Difficult cases challenge us to consider how we today in our truly Canadian context should read the roles and responsibilities of judgeship. Conversations over hard cases help us create and define our legal system. In this instance, we are required to pause and consider whether Justice Tilleman was fulfilling a legally recognized juridical role when he permitted community to speak in this decision or whether on a strict reading of our legal principles he overcompensated for community when he elevated the crime beyond the worst offence and worst offender nomenclature to describe it as a crime against community (paras 32, 45). It is this hard case that causes us to consider holistically the post-conviction regime set down for us in the Criminal Code including the long-term offender and dangerous offender regimes, which offer an alternate determination of long term risk and dangerousness of an offender like Saretzky who is deemed “a lethal harm to his community” (para 43).

The delicate balance of sentencing requires a steady hand; a community needs to heal, needs to feel in some way part of the application and presence of justice for matters happening in their living space. Principles of sentencing recognize this role of community. Yet, balance requires linkage and proportionality, and the sentencing court must fulfill the objectives of sentencing in such a manner that this offender is sanctioned for his actions and for his level of moral culpability or blameworthiness. Certainly, Justice Tilleman was aware of this when he emphasized the “deliberate and intentional conduct” of Saretzky in committing the offences (para 34-35). To fulfill these principles then, the court must, through the “judicial lens”, know the offender, the offence and the community.

Sentencing is, in my view along with bail, the most important part of the criminal justice system. Release until proven guilty and meaningful, principled and compassionate sanctioning are the bookends of the Criminal Code. Without either, our system will fall. Recently, the spot light has rightly been on the frailties of the justice system with bail as an indicator, like the canary in a coal mine, of the level of crisis facing us. Sentencing principles (R v Lacasse, 2015 SCC 64 (CanLII)) and plea negotiations (R v Anthony-Cook, 2016 SCC 43 (CanLII)) have received jurisprudential scrutiny but without any real integration into the now widespread discussion of what’s wrong with our justice system and how to fix it. Certainly, the Saretzky decision is not a prime example of “what’s wrong” but it reveals to us where the points of legal inquiry intersect and interface with public confidence and trust in the system. Judges, throughout the trial, make decisions based on the rule of law, and jurors too must confine their decision-making to the parameters of legal principle, which involve the application of common sense and reasonable inferences. However, community, in the fullest sense of the term, is, as Jane Jacobs envisioned it in Death and Life of Great American Cities, the legal equivalent of “eyes on the street”, that idiomatic second pair of eyes, which takes the form of the alter ego of the blindfolded goddess embodied as the community conscience or “community sense of justice”. In what form this communal sense or community space unfolds within the halls of justice is a matter for further reflection and consideration. Justice Tilleman in the Saretzky decision challenges us to do just that.

R v Anthony-Cook and the Community’s Sense of Justice

In R v Anthony-Cook (2016 SCC 43 (CanLII)), Justice Moldaver, on behalf of the full court, clarifies the test to be applied by a sentencing judge when departing from a joint submission on sentence and then gives clear step-by-step instructions to judges on how to properly apply the appropriate test. The joint sentence recommendation in this case arose out of a tragic set of circumstances in which the 28-year-old offender, who suffered from addiction and mental health issues, assaulted a fellow attendee at a local addiction and counselling organization. The assault resulted in death and ultimately, Mr. Anthony-Cook, after his lawyer negotiated a plea resolution with the Crown prosecutor, including an agreement on sentence, entered a plea of guilty to the charge of manslaughter. At the sentencing hearing, the defence and Crown prosecutor offered the joint submission on sentence, recommending the offender receive a further 18-months incarceration (he had already been in custody for a total of 11 months) without out any period of probation.

The sentencing judge declined to accede to the joint recommendation as the proposed sentence did “not give adequate weight to the principles of denunciation, deterrence, and protection of the public” (R v Anthony-Cook, 2014 BCSC 1503 (CanLII), Ehrcke J at para 68) and instead imposed a sentence of two years less a day to be followed by 3 years of probation. (at paras 54 to 63) In the sentencing judge’s view, the sentence proposed was unfit and therefore he was not bound by the joint submission. As a result, he departed “to some extent” from the negotiated sentence recommendation. (at para 67) The British Columbia Court of Appeal agreed with the sentencing judge’s assessment that the proposed sentence was unfit and not in the public interest and found no error in his sentencing departure. The matter was further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada (hereinafter SCC) to clarify the test to be used by a sentencing judge in departing from a joint submission on sentence. Appellate courts across Canada were not ad idem on the issue, using four different tests for departure: the fitness test, the demonstrably unfit test, the public interest test, and a test which viewed the issues of fitness and public interest as the same.  The Supreme Court of Canada was asked to clarify which test was the controlling one with the court unanimously approving of the public interest test. As the sentencing judge erred by applying the incorrect test, Anthony-Cook’s negotiated sentence was imposed by the court.

As we have come to expect from Justice Moldaver, it is a plain language decision giving practical guidance to the sentencing judge in the context of the realities of our criminal justice system. This system is realistically depicted in other recent Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) decisions, most notably in R v Jordan, 2016 SCC 27 (CanLII), where we are told that trial fairness, a most cherished aspect of our principles of fundamental justice, is not in fact in “mutual tension” with trial efficiency; rather they are, “in practice,” in a symbiotic or interdependent relationship. (at para 27) According to Jordan (at para 28), “timely trials further the interests of justice.” These “interests of justice” involve our “public confidence in the administration of justice” and most notably our “community’s sense of justice.” (at para 25) It is therefore within the public interest to create clear and articulable bright-lines in our justice system to promote these community values. In the Anthony-Cook decision, the SCC continue their search for clarity by delineating the line at which a sentencing judge can depart from a joint recommendation agreed to by the defence and the prosecution as determined by the “public interest test.” Yet, as illuminating as this public interest test may be and as clear as the guidance is, just what the Court means by “public interest” must be unpacked by reference to other SCC decisions and by the Court’s concept of the “community’s sense of justice.”

I purposely use the metaphor of “unpacking” for a reason. For to fully understand the public interest test in Anthony-Cook we must not only travel to those obvious decisions cited in Anthony-Cook, such as R v Lacasse, [2015] 3 SCR 1089, 2015 SCC 64 (CanLII) and R v Power, [1994] 1 SCR 601, 1994 CanLII 126 (SCC), but also to those decisions not mentioned by Justice Moldaver, such as Jordan, that have a clear and convincing connection. For the sake of “timeliness,” I will travel to one such notable case, R v St-Cloud, [2015] 2 SCR 328, 2015 SCC 27 (CanLII), another unanimous decision rendered by Justice Wagner, on the test to be applied in the oft troublesome yet revamped tertiary ground for bail release under s. 515(10)(c) of the Criminal Code. (For a further discussion of the St-Cloud decision, read my post on ideablawg.)

We find in St-Cloud a fulsome discussion, a “deep dive” so to speak, into the meaning of the term “public.” This case sheds the brightest light on the SCC’s emphasis on the public as the litmus test for concerns relating to the administration of justice generally and advances future SCC decisions on the trial judge’s specific role as the guardian or “gatekeeper” of a properly functioning justice system. I would argue, but leave to a future time, that the gatekeeping function of a trial judge is expanding under recent pronouncements from the SCC. This feature, in my view, is no longer confined to the traditional evidentiary gatekeeping duties but is reflected in the Court’s vision of the trial judge, in the broadest sense, as the protector and keeper of the administration of justice as informed by the public’s confidence in that system.

How much does this concept of the public impact the Anthony-Cook decision? I would argue, quite a lot. In Anthony-Cook, Justice Moldaver refers to both the phrase “public interest” and the term “confidence.” In Moldaver J’s view, “confidence” is a key indicator of the public interest. Therefore, the public interest test not only directly relates to the public’s confidence in the administration of justice but also to the offender’s confidence in that same system. This twinning of the public and the accused harkens back to Jordan’s twinning of trial fairness and court efficiency. We, in criminal law, do not traditionally align the community’s sense of justice with the offender’s need for justice. We tend to compartmentalize the two as the antithesis of one another except when directed to do so by law, such as in considering the imposition of a discharge under s. 730 of the Code, where such a sanction depends on the best interests of the accused and is not contrary to the public interest. In Anthony-Cook, we have come full circle as the sentencing judge must take into account all aspects of the term “public”.

Indeed, as recognized by the Court in Jordan and the many recent SCC decisions on sentencing, this silo approach is no longer useful or valid. Now, the “community’s sense of justice” is approached holistically in the grandest sense yet tempered by the balance and reasonableness our Canadian notion of justice is founded upon. Indeed, as discussed earlier the key descriptor of the community in Anthony-Cook and, quite frankly in most community oriented legal tests, is “reasonableness.” A “reasonably informed” and “reasonable” community participant is the embodiment of the “public interest.” Although this limiting notion is expected in order to provide the bright-line needed in criminal law, to ensure citizens fair notice of the law and to give those enforcing the law clear boundaries (see R v Levkovic, [2013] 2 SCR 204, 2013 SCC 25 (CanLII), Fish J at para 10), in a society where we value multiculturalism and diversity, this concept of “reasonableness” might not resonate and might not “in practice” fulfill the promise of the “community’s sense of justice.” No doubt, this is a matter that needs to be further “unpacked” as we continue our legal journey through the vagaries of the rule of law.

In any event, whatever inferences are needed in order to apply the public interest test, according to the SCC, it is the responsibility of our judiciary to be mindful of us, the public, and to apply our common sense, our “community’s sense of justice” in the “delicate” task of sentencing. (see Lacasse, Wagner J at paras 1 & 12, see also R v CAM, [1996] 1 SCR 500, 1996 CanLII 230 (SCC), Lamer CJ at para 91) This sense of community justice, as articulated in Anthony-Cook, will provide the guidance the sentencing judge needs in assessing whether or not a departure from a joint recommendation as to sentence, which is an acceptable and desirable practice promoting the twin desires of fairness and timeliness, is just and appropriate.

Also posted on the Ablawg.ca website.

 

R v LSM and the “Sanctity” of the Joint Submission: A Case Commentary for ABlawg (http://ablawg.ca)

In R v LSM, 2016 ABQB 112, Associate Chief Justice Rooke of the Court of Queen’s Bench of Alberta, sitting as a summary conviction appeal court, considers the “sanctity” of the joint submission and the circumstances in which the subsequent sentence will be varied on appeal. In his view “an appeal of a joint submission should rarely succeed” (at para 20). He supports this position by outlining three very narrow exceptions to this rule. After a thorough analysis of the principles, Associate Chief Justice Rooke reluctantly allows the appeal in part. He does so by finding only one ground of appeal, the ground presented on consent, falls within an exception. The decision, on its face, appears to be a straightforward application of the principles at hand. Yet, on further contemplation, this decision may not be about the “sanctity” of a joint submission but rather about ensuring that, in the end, justice is done.

Associate Chief Justice Rooke immediately frames the issue in sweeping terms in the opening paragraph of the decision: “This case concerns the sanctity of the ‘joint submission’ on a guilty plea and sentence in the administration of justice.” On a review of case law, the descriptor “sanctity” seems overdrawn. Although, joint submissions enjoy a “high level of deference” and must be given “serious consideration” by the sentencing judge (See R v GWC, 2000 ABCA 333, Berger, JA at para 20), they are not inviolable. A sentencing judge is not bound by the proposed sentence. Indeed, as explained by Mr. Justice Berger in GWC (at para 19), it is incumbent on the sentencing judge to undertake “a careful and diligent inquiry of counsel as to the circumstances underlying a joint sentencing submission” before exercising the discretion to accept it.  This is done to ensure the proposed sentence, in accordance with sentencing principles, is a fit one. Accordingly, sentencing judges should only reject a joint submission where the sentence proposed is unfit or unreasonable (See R v Gibson, 2015 ABCA 41 at paras 9 to 10).  Indeed, departing from a joint submission, which is fit, should not be done “even if he or she would impose a harsher sentence which would also be fit and reasonable” (See R v Bullock, 2013 ABCA 44, Berger, JA for the majority at para 18).

Some appellate jurisdictions have taken the position that a joint submission may also be rejected if the sentence is contrary to the public interest and would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. Currently, the efficacy of this additional more stringent ground for departing from a joint submission will be argued on March 31, 2016 before the Supreme Court of Canada in the Anthony-Cook case on appeal from the British Columbia Court of Appeal (R v Anthony-Cook, 2015 BCCA 22). In Alberta, this ground has not been consistently adopted. In the GWC decision, Mr. Justice Berger does refer to this position in paragraph 18 without endorsing it as a viable ground beyond fitness or unreasonableness. In the dissenting decision of Shular, (2014 ABCA 241) Madame Justice Hunt at paragraph 106 does rely on this ground as providing an additional basis for rejecting a joint submission. However, leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was dismissed in this case (Robert Shular v Her Majesty the Queen, 2014 CanLII 76800 (SCC).

Additionally, the joint submission itself is not considered a binding undertaking between the defence and prosecution. In the 2011 Nixon case ([2011] 2 SCR 566), the Supreme Court of Canada agreed with the Alberta Court of Appeal’s decision that the repudiation of a plea agreement, on the basis it was contrary to the public interest, was not an abuse of process but a proper exercise of prosecutorial discretion. In that instance, the plea negotiation included a joint submission on sentence.  

Even though the original joint submission cannot be considered sacrosanct, is the sentence imposed on the basis of a joint submission essentially “appeal proof?” Associate Chief Justice Rooke finds it is, except in three very narrow circumstances. In his view, where a joint submission is proffered by competent counsel and accepted by a sentencing judge, the offender should not be permitted to “resile” later on appeal (para 2). Further, according to Associate Chief Justice Rooke, the the appeal court should “support” joint submissions by upholding them on appeal (para 21). As he explains, in paragraphs 21 and 25, a joint submission is an efficient and effective way to deal with criminal matters in the “busy docket courts.” It would therefore be counter intuitive to the realities of the practice of criminal law and the quest for finality to provide a further forum for change. The appellate arena is not, as described by Associate Chief Justice Rooke in paragraph 25, an opportunity to express “buyer’s remorse.” This last comment has some truth to it as there must be articulable grounds for appeal in accordance with sentencing principles and s. 687 of the Criminal Code. However, Associate Chief Justice Rooke further contends that a sentence resulting from a joint submission does not exist “until we allege there is an error in the sentencing judge accepting our representations or some other way.” This premise comes very close to suggesting an erroneous position: that even an error in principle should not be a ground for appellate intervention. As argued in this commentary, that is exactly when appellate intervention is not only permitted but also desired.

In any event, Associate Chief Justice Rooke cites three “very narrow” circumstances in which an offender can “resile” from a sentence imposed by way of joint submission (para 2). The first exception is where the sentence imposed is illegal as it is statutorily unavailable (para 3). The second instance is where the sentence, “for some unusual reason,” is demonstrably unfit (para 4). Third, which according to Associate Chief Justice Rooke is the situation in LSM, is where there is a “change in circumstances” after sentence is imposed (para 5).

The first exception, illegality of sentence, makes sense. Certainly, there is an obligation on the appellate court to correct an illegal sentence. Even in cases where an appeal has not been filed within the designated appeal period, the court has allowed extensions to file an appeal where an illegal sentence was imposed (see for example R v MJR, 2007 NSCA 35). In R v Hunter (2004 ABCA 230), the Alberta Court of Appeal vacated the illegal conditional sentence of 18 months imposed for a summary conviction offence, where the maximum sentence was six months incarceration, in favour of time served.

The second exception permits an appeal where, for “unusual” reasons, the sentence imposed is demonstrably unfit. As an example of this, Associate Chief Justice Rooke refers to in paragraph 4 the unusual situation in which competence of counsel is raised on appeal. Granted, competency of counsel as it relates to the efficacy of a joint submission is a valid ground and, due to the presumption of competency, may be viewed as rarely raised. Leaving that situation aside, there may be other situations, not as rare, where a sentence resulting from a joint submission is demonstrably unfit or unreasonable. Associate Chief Justice Rooke in paragraph 21 depicts the heightened circumstances in which a joint submission might occur as a “busy docket court” where counsel “deemed to be competent and knowledgeable in the law” proffer a joint submission thereby “impliedly certifying” the sentence is fit and requesting the sentencing judge to “endorse” it.  Indeed, as mentioned earlier, it is precisely in those heightened circumstances of “busy docket courts” where matters are dealt with summarily, which may provide the perfect environment for an unfit sentence. It is in those scenarios where an accused may too readily accede to a joint submission or where “competent and knowledgeable counsel” may accept a position that upon further reflection may require appellate scrutiny. In the end, it is the ultimate fitness of the sentence imposed by whatever means, which is at issue on appeal. As Mr. Justice Wagner explains in paragraph 3 of the Lacasse decision ([2015] 3 SCR 1089), it is the very credibility of the criminal justice system at risk when an unfit sentence, be it “too harsh or too lenient,” is imposed. An unfit sentence does not become fit merely because everyone agrees to it just as an illegal sentence, imposed on consent, does not then become legal. There are numerous appellate decisions upholding departures from joint submissions to further this contention. Surely, the same reasoning should hold in the converse situation of an offender appealing a sentence he or his counsel agreed to previously, particularly considering it is the offender’s liberty interest which is at risk.

It is the third exception, permitting a variation where there is a change in circumstance after imposition of the sentence, which seems an incongruous ground considering Associate Chief Justice Rooke’s position. Indeed, a change of circumstance (not even a material change of circumstance is required) is a generous ground for intervention. In paragraph 27 of the decision, Associate Chief Justice Rooke attempts to support this ground for intervention by reference to the 2012 decision of the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Gangl (2012 ABCA 121). There, the majority of the court found the sentencing judge made no errors in imposing sentence yet reduced the sentence. In the majority’s view, the appellant’s circumstances were exceptional and the accused who had “serious health problems” was impacted by the “consequences” of the conviction. As a result, the majority converted the conviction to a conditional discharge. The dissenting justice disagreed as there was no “reviewable error.”

Although Associate Chief Justice Rooke characterizes the Gangl decision as authority for an exception to the general rule, this finding is questionable for two reasons. First, this was a case, according to the majority, for a conditional discharge. A discharge under s. 730 of the Criminal Code, is a sanction in which a finding of guilt is made but no conviction is entered. A discharge, per s. 730, is granted where it is “in the best interests of the accused and not contrary to the public interest.” A consideration in imposing a discharge is whether a conviction would have “serious repercussions” (See R v Sanchez-Pino, 1973 CanLII 794 (ON CA)) for the accused, such as employment difficulties or, as suggested by the court in Gangl, “a number of consequences flow from this conviction” (para 2). Admittedly, the court’s analysis in Gangl is brief and does not discuss the six factors to consider in granting a discharge as required by the MacFarlane decision (1976 ALTASCAD 6 (CanLII)), but, on the face of the record, one could argue that in Gangl there was a “reviewable” error.

Second, this exception for a change in circumstances post-sentence is not a ground for appellate intervention according to the newly released decision of the Supreme Court of Canada in Lacasse and as quoted by Associate Chief Justice Rooke in paragraph 24. Associate Chief Justice Rooke makes further reference to the Ontario Court of Appeal case in Wood (1988, 131 C.C.C. (3d) 250). This is a 1988 case decided before the Supreme Court of Canada decision in Lacasse in which, as previously discussed, emphasizes the importance of deference to the sentencing judge. Further, Justice Lacourciere at paragraph 9, in rendering the Wood decision, states that “certainly the accused is given greater latitude than the Crown on an appeal of this kind in that he is generally not bound to the same extent by the submissions of his counsel as to sentence.” Wood was referred to approvingly in both the GWC decision at paragraph 19 and in the LRT decision (2010 ABCA 224 at para 11). As succinctly put by Justice Lacourciere in Wood (para 9), “the ultimate responsibility to determine the fitness of sentence is on the Court of Appeal.”

Associate Chief Justice Rooke, applying his rule, ultimately finds only one ground of appeal as a matter properly coming under the third exception. Earlier, in outlining this exception in paragraph 5, he offered s. 161 as an example of when such a change in circumstances may occur. This section provides for a variance of conditions in a prohibition order imposed on an offender convicted of any number of sexual offences involving children. As he notes and as contained in the wording of s. 161(3), an application to vary the sentence is heard before the sentencing judge or “where the court is for any reason unable to act, another court of equivalent jurisdiction.” In other words, the proper forum for the change is not on appeal but on application to the originating court.  Yet, Associate Chief Justice Rooke despite the matter of jurisdiction, varies sentence on this ground, not because of s. 161 but because the change in circumstance is a new joint submission proffered on appeal by two competent counsel. One can infer, as equally competent as sentencing counsel. Here, Associate Chief Justice Rooke finds himself between the proverbial “rock and a hard place”: on one hand, he outlined the difficulties of appealing a joint submission, the rarity of success, the limited circumstances it should be done, the sound policy reasons for not permitting such an appeal. On the other, he accedes to the new joint submission, not based on any principles of sentencing, but rather on a procedural availability not even within his purview on a strict reading of the section.

Perhaps, in the end, this pragmatic and experienced trial judge, sitting as a summary conviction appeal court, recognized that principles and rules do not always produce a just outcome. Perhaps, he agrees with the majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal in Gangl that the appellate court “is the last stop on the road to mercy” (see Gangl, Watson JA at para 21). Or perhaps, as initially suggested by Associate Chief Justice Rooke, the LSM decision may indeed be all about the “sanctity” of the joint submission, in whichever forum it is offered and in whatever circumstances it arises.

 

Let’s Be Clear: The Supreme Court of Canada and the Enhanced Credit Cases

The enhanced credit trilogy cases released by the Supreme Court of Canada are truly a lesson in clarity on many levels. First, the main judgment in the Summers case, written by Madame Justice Karakatsanis, is clear, concise (at least for a SCC judgment) and readable. Second, the main basis for dismissing the Crown appeal is the government’s lack of clarity in defining the meaning of “circumstances” that justify enhanced credit under s. 719(3.1). Conversely, third, is the seemingly clear intention of the government to “cap” the credit at a 1:1.5 ratio. However, fourth, are the clearly defined and “well-established” and “long-standing” sentencing principles, which included enhanced credit for the lack of parole eligibility during pre-trial custody. In order to “overturn” these principles, Parliament must, fifthly, use clear and explicit language in the legislation.

What is also clear about this judgment (sixth) is that the Court is engaging in a dialogue with the government. If the government wants to change the law, they must do so, well, clearly – the government cannot hide behind value-laden words such as “truth” and “transparency.” However, the Court, albeit in an aside in paragraph 56 of the Summers judgment, also places a caveat on the government’s ability to change entrenched legal principles when Justice Karakatsanis states “Parliament does, of course, have the power to exclude these circumstances from consideration (barring a constitutional challenge).” Certainly, this advice is clear: if the government chooses to change legislation, then any changes must be consistent with the Charter.

 

Parliament, the ball is now in your “court!”

 

 

 

Ideablawg’s Weekly Connections: Inside The Courtroom

Although criminal lawyers have an intimate knowledge of the courtrooms in which they practice, what do we really know about courtrooms elsewhere? We assume other courts would be all fairly similar but having practiced in Ontario and appeared in a myriad of courtrooms from Toronto, to Windsor, to Lindsay, and beyond, I can say courtrooms do differ. But how do courtrooms in other jurisdictions look? What about other countries? What goes on in them anyway? Well, thanks to the Internet, there are options and tools to help anyone peek into the inside of a court and to see, and perhaps understand more clearly, what exactly is going on inside.

1.   The International Criminal Court (ICC): I have written about the International Criminal Court in previous blogs, most notably here. This past week, the ICC trial chamber has been hearing the Ruto and Sang prosecution. William Samoei Ruto, the Deputy President of the Republic of Kenya and Joshua Arap Sang, head of operations of Kalenjin language radio station KASS FM in Nairobi, are charged with crimes against humanity under the Rome Statute. Ruto and Sang are being tried for their role in the ethnic violence ocurring after the 2007-2008 Kenyan elections. The ICC distributes a video summary of weekly cases in their video series called “In The Courtroom.” The Ruto and Sang matter is this week’s installment showing the courtroom and the various members of the court as well as excerpts of the testimony of a witness, whose identity is carefully protected through use of a pseudonym, facial pixilation, and voice distortion. After the hearing summary, there is a short explanation about the court process including the possible prison terms and where such a sentence would be served. Not only does this video give us an opportunity to experience a totally different kind of criminal court but it gives us a better appreciation of the difficulties surrounding the prosecution and defence of international crimes.

2.   You Be The Judge: This is a great online interactive tool created by the Ministry of Justice in the UK to explain how a judge sentences an accused. The website allows the viewer to observe various criminal cases and to make interactive decisions, based on various factors, to determine the length of incarceration. The viewer/player experiences the courtroom setting and benefits from a number of “asides” from the Bench explaining the process. Through polls taken during the hearing, the viewer can see, in a risk-free environment, if their decisions are consistent with other viewers and with the sentencing judge. I have used this website in my undergraduate criminal justice classes to show how a sentencing judge uses his or her discretion with the rule of law to come to an appropriate and fit sentence.

3.   The Model Court: In a previous blog, I wrote a short piece on the intersection of law and art based on readings from a group of essays in Thousand Eyes: Media Technology, Law and Aesthetics published by Sternberg Press. In the journal are photographs of the “Model Court,” which is a collaborative research project involving a group of artists, Sidsel Meineche Hansen, Lawrence Abu Hamdan (who does some fascinating aural work in the area of the political role of voice in law called Aural Contract), Oliver Rees (he’s so supercool I can’t even describe what he does, so just check out his website) and architect, Lorenzo Pezzani. The project “uses the structure and technologies of the courtroom to interrogate the signifying and controlling role architecture plays in contemporary art and society.” By offering a “model court” as a container of ideas of “jurisprudence, evidence, and the hidden apparatuses that become the essential constituents of tribunals,” the project extends us beyond the courtroom into a representative space, which pushes the traditional four-wall envelope to give us an alternative view of justice. 

The Ideablawg Criminal Law Trend for 2013-2014: On Sentencing and On Podcasting

I start my criminal lectures at MRU with a current events “sweep” of criminal cases to ground the principles and the legal “speak,” learned throughout the course, with what is really going on out there in the real world of crime. This connects concept to context, which is so important in law, in order to teach the student to apply principles to a real life fact situation. This acquired aptitude requires the student to be comfortable outside of the academic rigour of law books, a much-needed skill in the lawyering world, which promotes creativity as the context forces the student to visualize alternate solutions for the legal problem.

As I teach in Alberta, I tend to look locally when I scout out the criminal law news of the week. This past week was so full of connections that we spent a good half hour discussing three of these current cases. Interestingly, the cases themselves were connected as they all referred to the sentence imposed in each particular case.

Of course, sentencing is the last act in a criminal case where there is a conviction. Most of the “legal business” of criminal law is concerned with pre-sentence matters such as the elements of a criminal offence and the application of criminal procedure, particularly in the Charter era. Sentencing is not even taught in the mandatory first year criminal law courses and some law schools do not even offer a sentencing law course. And yet, it is the sentence, the punishment to be imposed, which garners the most public attention and hence catches the most media attention as well.

The reason for this preference is varied. My theory on the popularity of sentencing cases in the media is that sentencing tends to be easily understandable to the average citizen. Everyone appreciates the significance of time in jail. No one needs the Criminal Code to explain that. Furthermore, sentencing is the only piece of the case in which the human aspect is so “front and centre,” no longer taking a backseat to the incident itself.

The victim, at a sentencing hearing, has the right to “speak” through the “victim impact statement” and is not merely a piece of evidence required by the prosecution to fulfill the legal requirements. Instead, the victim becomes a true stakeholder in the outcome as the Judge listens to the victim, not as a witness to the events, but as a participant, whose life was irretrievably changed.

The role of the convicted accused is also transformed from the defensive position wherein a legal “wall” is built around the accused to protect but also to minimize intrusion. It is only at the sentencing hearing that the accused steps out of a caricature of an accused and becomes filled in with the life stories all too familiar in the criminal courts of childhood troubles, conditions of abuse, and social failures. No wonder, it is the sentencing arena to which the public can so readily relate and which brings home, literally, the real life angst of the criminal law. 

On that note, it was unsurprising that the class started our current events journey with the Baumgartner case from Edmonton in which twenty-two year old Travis Baumgartner became the first Canadian to be sentenced for consecutive parole ineligibility terms for multiple murders under amendments to the Criminal Code from 2011. Section 745.51 of the Criminal Code permits such a sentence may be imposed by the trial Judge. Note the permissive “may” as the trial Judge is not mandated to impose such a sentence. Indeed, the section also includes the factors to consider in making the decision such as the character of the accused, the nature of the offence, and the circumstances of the incident. If the sentencing arises from a jury trial, the Judge must also consider the jury’s recommendation on whether or not the parole ineligibility should be consecutive under s. 745.21.

Baumgartner, a security guard shot four of his colleagues as they took ATM monies from the busy University of Alberta student HUB Mall.  Three of the guards died and the fourth survived. Baumgartner, as part of a plea negotiation, entered a plea of guilty to one count of first degree murder under s.231(2), two counts of second degree murder, and one count of attempt murder. As indicated by Associate Chief Justice Rooke in his reasons "these assassinations and executions were carried out by a cold-blooded killer, all with the simple motive of robbery." In sentencing Baumgartner to the agreed upon total sentence of life imprisonment with no chance for parole for forty years, Justice Rooke found the offence was “some of the most horrendous crimes that anyone can imagine.” However, it was not a case for the maximum parole ineligibility of seventy-five years, as Baumgartner was not the worst offender, being a young man with no prior criminal record and in recognition of the guilty plea, which showed remorse for his actions.

These amendments to the Criminal Code, part of the tough on crime agenda of Harper’s government, did attract much controversy. Critics voiced concerns over the political motivation of the change, suggesting it was merely a “political stunt” done to assuage the public fear of crime without any hard evidence such a change would in fact change crime statistics. In a word, the changes appeared to be more about “retribution bordering on vengeance” as characterized by D’Arcy Depoe of the Criminal Trial Lawyers’ Association and less about the sentencing principles of rehabilitation and deterrence.

On the other hand, sentencing is a punishment and does have an aspect of retribution for retributions sake. Certainly, the public outrage over concurrent sentences for multiple murders is understandable on a gut-level whereby a murder of one is equated with the murder of many. The controversy over this and the other numerous sentencing changes to the Criminal Code, such as the mandatory minimum sentences, is far from over, hence my suggestion that the hot button criminal law issue for 2013-2014 will focus on sentencing and these new amendments.

The other case we considered in class, another robbery case, was closer to the academic home as we discussed the 18 month jail sentence imposed on the ex MRU President Meghan Melnyk. Unlike Baumgartner, there was no joint agreement on sentence. As an aside, it must be pointed out that a sentencing Judge is not bound by a joint submission on sentence. In any event, considering the maximum sentence for robbery is life imprisonment, the sentence, in the eyes of the class seemed light. However, considering the position of counsel on sentence: defence asked for a conditional sentence or in the alternative ninety days, while the Crown asked for four years imprisonment being the typical “starting point” for such offences, the 18 month sentence appears to be within the range.  The eyebrow raising part of the matter was Melnyk’s concept of community work. Prior to sentencing she appeared at local High Schools discussing her situation and her gambling problem. Judge Brown, in sentencing Melnyk observed that she was paid for each appearance. This will definitely not be case when Melnyk fulfills the other part of her sentence when she is released from prison - 240 hours of community service.

The final case discussed was a sentence appeal argued before the Court of Appeal for Alberta. The Crown appealed the sentence imposed on ex-Stampeder running back, Joffery Reynolds, who was convicted by former Assistant Chief Judge Stevenson (of the provincial court and is now supernumery or a relief judge) of assaulting (actual convictions were for assault causing bodily harm under s. 267, assault under s. 266, and being unlawfully in a dwelling house under s.349) his ex-girlfriend for which he received a ninety-day sentence to be served intermittedly on weekends and two years probation as well as an apology letter and a five thousand dollar donation. The Crown’s position on sentence at trial and at appeal was for a two to three year sentence, an odd range considering a two year sentence is served in a provincial reformatory and a three year sentence is served in the much harsher federal system.

At trial, the defence recommended a non-custodial, particularly as Reynold’s celebrity status caused a media flurry and a diminishment of his public status. The Crown on appeal pointed to the sentencing Judge’s failure to consider the domestic nature of the offence. In discussion, the class clearly agreed with the Crown on that note, believing their relationship to be something more than just “buddies” as submitted by the defence.

This decision will be interesting as it may tackle the difficulty in sentencing the celebrity and it may also clarify the meaning of “domestic assault.” As an aside, the provincial government recently brought forward legislation to end intermittent sentences, which were used to allviate the burden of imprisonment where an offender had gainful employment. This may not be an issue raised on appeal but I believe this will cause a clash in the courts when the jail refuses to fufill a Judge's order to do so. Keep posted on this issue as well.

The other cases I had but were not discussed I will repeat here but I will not elaborate on today. Another sentencing case – the Paxton dangerous offender application is ongoing before Justice Martin. The Court of Appeal also heard an appeal against the conviction of the young offender in the Cavanagh murder case, which involved a “Mr. Big investigation.” Finally, a little off the crime path but still in the public welfare arena is the concern over work-related deaths in Alberta and the need to tighten regulatory laws in the area. The province recently went to the administrative efficiency of ticketing offenders, both employees and employers, in real-time for real-time breaches. However, the call is for more prosecutions, better outcomes, and a more serious consideration of criminal code charges for work-related incidents.

These cases, in my view, also signal some Canadian criminal law trends as the use of dangerous offender applications increase, as the courts struggle with unique investigation techniques in a Charter world, and as the public demands more and better action in the regulatory field. Keep an eye on my future blogs as we trend through the year.

On a final note is a new upcoming addition to this blog as I enter the world of podcasting. I intend to offer a short podcast on sections of the Criminal Code.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Searches, Verdicts, and Sentences

The Supreme Court of Canada will be hearing the appeals on four criminal matters this month. Two of the four raise the same issue and will be heard together. Each of these three issues differ dramatically – highlighting the amazing breadth of the criminal law and why practicing in the area of criminal law is so engaging and interesting.

The first case to be argued is the Pham case from Alberta raising the issue of the appropriateness of sentencing an accused to a reduced length of imprisonment on the basis of deportation consequences.  The second case from Newfoundland, R v W.H., will be argued on January 21 and is concerned with an unreasonable jury verdict where credibility is the sole issue at trial. Finally, the two remaining cases, the Mackenzie case from Saskatchewan and the Chehil case from Nova Scotia, are vitally important cases on the use of sniffer dogs in searching for drugs.

Over the course of the next ten days, I will post an analysis of these cases as a primer for these hearings.  So be posted for searches, verdicts, and sentences.

Judges As Poets?

The poet "judges not as the judge judges but as the sun falling around a helpless thing." Walt Whitman - Preface to the Leaves of Grass (1855)

WH Auden - Law, Like Love:

...Law, says the judge as he looks down his nose,

 Speaking clearly and most severely,

Law is as I've told you before,

Law is as you know I suppose,

Law is but let me explain it once more,

Law is The Law...

Law is the clothes men wear...

From the two excerpts above, you have probably already formulated the premise of this blog: comparing and contrasting the differing viewpoints of poets through verse as opposed to judges through the formality of the law. Although that is the correct assumption, the bigger question is how did you come to that conclusion? Well, simply by reading the verses and extrapolating through their meaning. Thus, we come to the point: poetry can and does express in a few words what prose expresses in many. Law, by its very nature, tends to the prose side for that very reason. In other words, in law, verbosity reigns.

And yet, poetry does have a place in legal reasoning. As discussed yesterday, the complete versification of a judgment is frowned upon, but the use of relevant and timely excerpts of poetry or sayings of a poet to emphasize or illuminate a legal point, has an accepted place in the legal arena. The Honourable Justice Randall Scott Echlin, sitting on the Ontario Superior Court of Justice before he passed away, is a case in point. Although his practice area was employment law, his broad use of the wisdom of the poets in his judgments makes one wonder what his undergraduate degree was in. In three of his judgments, I found references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe, and Henri Frederic Amiel. Each of these excerpts provided an "opener" to the judgment and provide support and meaning to the reasons. 

Alberta is not immune either as Provincial Court Judge Ann Brown used the same quote of the poet Ovid in three sentencing cases. But the laurel wreath goes to British Columbia Provincial Court Judge Doherty who, in sentencing the accused, in a tragic manslaughter case, quoted Lord Byron from canto the third in Don Juan "All tragedies are finish'd by a death."

Upon reading that seven word phrase, there is a clear understanding by all of the immense impact a moment in time can have on a person's life and another person's death. And it is the poets and their poetry that can help us see this.

 

Is Violence The Word?

Violence is ubiquitous in our society. Although Calgary’s murder rate is shockingly low for this year, some 300 km away in Edmonton, it is shockingly high. Why? Everyone who watches sports or partakes in culture would agree there are big differences between these two Alberta-bound cities. Different psyche means different societal responses to violence. Or maybe Edmonton is more of a reflection of our global thirst for violence?

Enter Steven Pinker and the myth of violence. According to Pinker, the idea we are a more violent society is just dead wrong. Historically and statistically, in the Middle Ages, we experienced more deaths by warfare, more deaths by punishment, more deaths for entertainment, and a much higher murder rate than we do now. Why so wrong? Better press coverage for one. Today, we hear more about violence and murder. Cognitive illusion is another reason. Humans tend to better remember the gory and the violent.

What implications are there for criminal law? Statistics can be meaningful in a sentencing hearing. Often, the Crown, and even the Judge, will refer to the increase of a specific crime in a particular area as an aggravating factor on sentence. This statistic can translate into a greater need for general deterrence, and typically, a greater sentence for the accused. The myth of violence may blunt this kind of argument.

Better yet, I urge you to go full-circle on this connection between ideas and law and read Robert Cover’s journal article entitled, Violence and The Word. Cover, an American legal scholar, wrote unbelievably creative and compelling articles on jurisprudence and constitutional law. Violence and The Word, which opens with the sentence, “Legal interpretation takes place in a field of pain and death,” dissects the relationship between a criminal judge’s imposition of sentence, the accused who receives it, and the legal structures, which make it possible.

In a society where the reality of violence and the idea of violence are so disparate, Cover and Pink may help us understand why.

Want to read more? Click here: Robert Cover and Steven Pinker

When Does One Marijuana Plant Plus One Shared Joint Equal Nine Months Incarceration?

Yesterday, I read a number of twitters about the new Omnibus Crime Bill now making its fast and furious way through the Canadian Parliament. This particular set of tweets pointed out an absurdity: a person can be sentenced to a mandatory 9 months in jail for growing a marijuana plant, smoking a joint with friends, all while sitting in the comfort of his or her own rental apartment. My first reaction was one of disbelief. I shared this tweet with my criminal procedure class with interesting results.

Some of the students, not unlike my reaction, gasped and shook their heads. But there was one student who applauded the action. This student, as an owner of rental property, was glad to hear that property rights will be protected. Instead of that much bandied about acronym (lawyers love acronyms!), NIMBY, it was NITPILO – Not In The Property I Lease Out. The student had a good point.

So I decided to investigate this new amendment further. Upon reading the actual amendment, the following became clear:

  1. This is a mandatory minimum sentence or MMS
  2. Applies to less than 201 marijuana plants
  3.  Must be convicted of production for the purpose of trafficking
  4. One of a list of factors must apply
  5. One of those factors is the accused “used real property that belongs to a third party”

What does this add up to? Well, an argument. My spouse, who is also a criminal lawyer, and I had a boisterous argument over the application of this new amendment. The issue was; who can be captured by this amendment?

The argument revolved around the offence of production for the purpose and the meaning of using property “belonging to” another. So, we did what all good lawyers do when we disagree, we ran to our respective computers and did some legal research.

What did we find? I found more questions than answers. Although an accused will be acquitted of possession for the purpose of trafficking if the marijuana is for personal use, not necessarily so for production for the purpose. Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act (CDSA is the acronym), production includes “cultivating, propagating, and harvesting.”

So yes, you a grow a plant or two and harvest it to make a joint, you are producing contrary to the Act. But it must be for the purpose of trafficking. Okay, so if you produce for yourself only, you are not within this new amendment. But, if you grow the plant, harvest the plant, roll a joint and give the joint to a friend– that is trafficking the produced drug.

But how about that last factor – in rental property? It says real property belonging to a third party. My husband and I really argued about this. Many drug forfeiture hearings revolve around ownership of the property. The ownership is sometimes obscured through numbered companies, which are actually owned by criminal organizations. His argument was; this would only apply to those nefarious cases. I disagreed; this factor refers to rental property. It is protecting my student and many others who rent out property.

Who is right? Just read the House of Commons publication explaining the new legislation. The factors are for “health and safety.” Remember Safe Communities Act. The aggravating factor is committing the offence in a rental property.

Bottom line? The math does add up if there is a situation of a grow-op in a rented home. Bad things happen to homes used as grow-ops and adding a further disincentive to do this can be a good thing. Whether or not a MMS (acronym for mandatory minimum sentence) is appropriate or constitutional is for another blog.

Where the math does not add up however, is in the situation of the lost soul who grows a couple of plants, makes some joints from them and invites friends over for a smoke in his rented apartment. Is that justice? You do the math.

My question to the lawyers out there: in light of yesterday’s SCC decision in Cote, in which the Court showed strong support for Charter values and rights in their 24(2) analysis, would this legislation pass Charter scrutiny under a s.1 reasonable limitation argument?