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Mandatory Minimums: Recalibrating sentencing initiatives in Canada

Mandatory Minimums: Recalibrating sentencing initiatives in Canada

Systemic racism is alive and well in the Canadian judicial system. A refreshed approach to sentencing is long over due.


Bill C-5 seeks to do just that – by repealing Mandatory Minimum Penalties (“MMP”) for 14 offences in the Criminal Code, and all six MMP’s in the Controlled Drug and Substances Act. Statistics demonstrate that MMP’s disproportionately effect Canadians of color – specifically, Indigenous and Black Canadians.

Two important factors to consider:

Overincarceration rates

Data on this issue was collected by the Government of Canada for the periods of 2007-2008 and 2016-2017. The information compiled desmonsrates that Indigenous and Black offenders were most likely to be admitted to the Federal correctional system for an offence attached to a mandatory minimum sentence.

Judicial discretion in sentencing

Mandatory minimum penalties eliminate a Judge’s ability to sentence an offender while considering their unique circumstances. In cases where a mandatory minimum punishment is the best an Accused can hope for, there is little reason for the Accused to make any meaningful effort to mitigate the damage. When a custodial sentence is imminent, the feeling of having “nothing left to lose” can take over. Any incentive for an Accused to plead guilty to an offence carrying an MMP, when their efforts for rehabilitation have no influence on the Judge’s ability to impose a just and fair sentence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reforms to the MMP provisions of the Criminal Code and CDSA are specific to the following offences:

Criminal Code:

1. Using a firearm or imitation firearm in commission of offence (two separate offences)
2. Possession of firearm or weapon knowing its possession is unauthorized (two separate offences)
3. Possession of prohibited or restricted firearm with ammunition
4. Possession of weapon obtained by commission of offence
5. Weapons trafficking (excluding firearms and ammunition)
6. Possession for purpose of weapons trafficking (excluding firearms and ammunition)
7. Importing or exporting knowing it is unauthorized
8. Discharging firearm with intent
9. Discharging firearm — recklessness
10. Robbery with a firearm
11. Extortion with a firearm
12. Selling, etc., of tobacco products and raw leaf tobacco

Controlled Drugs and Substances Act:

 1. Trafficking or possession for the purpose of trafficking (two separate offences)
2. Importing and exporting or possession for the purpose of exporting (two separate offences)
3. Production of substance Schedule I or II (two offence)

Mandatory Minimum Punishments will remain in effect within the Criminal Code for other offences to which MMP’s apply.

It is important to note that the Judge can still impose a period of incarceration for any of the offences mentioned above – they simply will no longer be bound by legislation to impose a specific period of jail.

As we’ve seen with other aspects of Canadian criminal law, a “one size fits all” approach is rarely just. Sadly, these legislative amendments will do nothing to address the current rate of overincarceration of Indigenous and Black Canadians. For them, it is too little, too late.

If you have been charged with a criminal offence, it is important that you speak to experienced defence counsel without delay. Our office skillfully handles both summary and indictable offences, ranging from assault, mischief, criminal harassment and impaired driving, to sexual assault, murder, robbery, unlawful confinement, and everything in between. We are licensed to practice in British Columbia, and work in the Lower Mainland and Greater Vancouver Area including, but not limited to Richmond, Vancouver, Surrey, Ladner, Burnaby, Port Coquitlam, New Westminster and Langley, and in the Fraser Valley, including, but not limited to Abbotsford , Chilliwack, Hope, Mission and Agassiz. We are also licensed to practice in the Yukon Territory and frequently accept clients in Whitehorse, Dawson City, Old Crow, Mayo, Haines Junction, and Faro. 

Fake ‘til you ….get arrested

Whenever incidents relating to terrorism in Canada hit the news, the eyes of Canadians widen with revolt. Recent headlines elicited a similar response, with a healthy dose of confusion and curiosity added to the mix.  


On September 21, 2020, criminal charges were announced against 25 year old Ontario resident Shehroze Chaudhry – but not due to allegations of committing acts of terrorism. Rather, Chaudhry has been charged under Section 83.231(1) of the Criminal Code – perpetrating a hoax regarding terrorist activity:

83.231 (1) Every one commits an offence who, without lawful excuse and with intent to cause any person to fear death, bodily harm, substantial damage to property or serious interference with the lawful use or operation of property:

(a) conveys or causes or procures to be conveyed information that, in all the circumstances, is likely to cause a reasonable apprehension that terrorist activity is occurring or will occur, without believing the information to be true; or

(b) commits an act that, in all the circumstances, is likely to cause a reasonable apprehension that terrorist activity is occurring or will occur, without believing that such activity is occurring or will occur.

Chaudhry was a frequent guest on an award winning New York Times podcast known as “Caliphate”. He spoke, in gruesome detail, of his time as an ISIS executioner in Syria, among other things. But the charges levelled against him assert that his personal experiences as an ISIS soldier are fabricated.

While the NYT claimed to have verified his role in ISIS, he gave conflicting accounts to CBC, even going so far as to say he would take a polygraph to prove he had never killed anyone. He likely thought this would absolve him any criminal liability relating to terrorism offences in Canada, but the charges against him refute this misconception.

The details released from the police don’t specify if any other person was harmed or killed due to the alleged yarn by Chaudhry, but they will play a determinative role if he is convicted. The sentences range from a fine and imprisonment in a provincial correctional institution if prosecuted summarily, to life imprisonment should Crown proceed by indictment.

Chaudhry’s case demonstrates that Canadian jurisprudence condemns all activity relating to terrorism – whether it’s the real deal or not.

Body Worn Cameras: What’s The Hold Up?

Over the last couple of months, there has been outcry from the public urging the use of BWC’s (Body Worn Cameras) for Canadian law enforcement. Although initially in response to the growing unrest relating to police brutality in the United States, there are echoes of abandoned intentions from Canadian officials dating back at least a few years. 


Back in 2015, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (“OPCC”) issued a publication regarding the use of BWC by police, in collaboration with privacy agencies in Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec. The remaining Canadian law enforcement agencies from other provinces and territories acted “in consultation”.

For reference: according to the CBC, there were a total of 2 incidents involving the death of individuals at the hands of law enforcement in New Brunswick between 2012 and 2014, 12 incidents in Quebec, and 14 incidents in Alberta. Interestingly enough, British Columbia (on par with Quebec at 14 deaths) and Ontario (with the highest rate of police violence resulting in death in the country at 25 deaths between 2012 and 2014) were only acting in consultation.

The report hails the effectiveness of BWC to capture high quality images, videos, and audio recordings – so effective, in fact, that the OPCC had grave concerns regarding their ability to capture material that could jeopardize the privacy of innocent and uninvolved bystanders.

The report goes on to tout the value of BWC for evidentiary purposes, including analytics so sophisticated that the material obtained would likely be suitable for biometric comparison – aka, facial recognition

There is no arguing the fact that the use of BWC by police has implications for the privacy of citizens in their everyday lives – especially since once fitted, citizens would likely expect on-duty officers to have their devices on a continuous basis as opposed to intermittently.

Benefits of BWC include the ability to review interactions between police and the public, recording communications between the police and suspects in the course of an investigation, identifying potential witnesses, and of course recording interactions between police officers. Many criminal cases involve evidence obtained through the use of dash cams, which provide audio from inside a police cruiser and video from the perspective of the driver. The effectiveness of this technology loses value when the investigation takes place outside of a police vehicle, as the audio often fails to capture intelligible communications between police and a suspect, or between officers themselves. Although the dash cam is kept running, the audio portion is often useless when the interactions between police and a suspect take place outside the vehicle, and the windows of the police cruiser are closed, or if the police/suspect leave the immediate area where the audio is successfully captured.

The report indicates that while continuous recording would undoubtedly provide a greater level of accountability for the actions of police, the threat to personal privacy reigns supreme:

From an accountability perspective, continuous recording may be preferable because it captures an unedited recording of an officer’s actions and the officer cannot be accused of manipulating recordings for his or her own benefit. However, from a privacy perspective, collecting less or no personal information is always the preferred option”

In 2014, the Edmonton Police concluded a pilot project regarding the use of BWC by its officers. The conclusion?:

“The cameras had no effect on police use-of-force incidents and said there was no statistical difference in resolving police complaints”

According to an analysis done by CBC, there were a total of four deaths between 2012 and 2014 relating to officers of the Edmonton Police Service. By comparison, there were 9 deaths in the same period relating to officers of the Toronto Police Service. The results of the Pilot Project may have seen different results in a different jurisdiction.

The Edmonton Police explained that in addition to being ineffective to expose cases of police misconduct, the related expenses were simply unrealistic. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the cost of the devices themselves, but the expense to store and manage all of the material collected: somewhere between 6 and 15 million dollars over five years, which also includes hiring personnel qualified for the job. 

Finding the balance between accountability, transparency and oversight of police against the protection of privacy for Canadian citizens is a legitimate and profound task – one that cannot be taken lightly. As the calls for BWC in Canadian law enforcement grow louder, and as Canadians revisit the reality of what it is to be privileged in this country, we can only hope that the values of dignity and equality are recognized as being more valuable than the cost of the equipment that very well could save lives.

Mission Impossible: Managing COVID-19 in the Canadian Correctional System

On March 18, 2020, the BC court system responded to the coronavirus pandemic swiftly and without hesitation, reducing operations by the likes of which criminal counsel simply hasn’t seen before. Once it was confirmed how rapidly COVID19 spreads, the crowded confines of publicly accessed courtrooms were immediately deemed inappropriate – dangerous even. Since courtrooms often yield a congregation of some of society’s most vulnerable people, it made perfect sense to act defensively. These decisions, and many others effecting the justice system, were made only one week after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.

Unfortunately, there was a noticeable absence of urgency when it came time to protect the vulnerable inmate population overcrowded and totally confined within the walls of Mission Institution.


“In the worst-case scenario, CSC will need to order more body bags and find cold storage to stack up the bodies of those whose lives will be lost that could have been saved”Justin Piche, criminologist, Criminalization and Punishment Project at the University of Ottawa

On March 31, 2020, federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair recommended that the Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) immediately consider the release of non-violent inmates to mitigate the unavoidable reality that the virus could, and would, devastate the wellbeing of prison populations. His recommendation came on the heels of the CSC announcing the first two positive COVID-19 cases in federal institutions in Quebec.

On April 4, 2020, the CSC announced 4 confirmed cases at Mission Institution, leading to a lockdown of the facility.  

By April 8, 2020, there were 11 confirmed cases, all inmates. Nearly one month had passed since the WHO declared a global pandemic.

By April 18, 60 inmates and 10 staff tested positive, and the CSC marked its first coronavirus related inmate death, exactly one month after the courts effectively shut down.

By April 25, 2020, 106 inmates and 12 correctional officers were confirmed to be infected, representing the largest outbreak in the Canadian Correctional System. On this date, the CSC advised that all inmates at Mission Medium Institution had been tested, but in any event, new cases were continuing to be discovered.

While disturbing, none of these developments are surprising. The largest incidence of outbreaks has been at long-term care homes – combining close quarters, limited mobility, and care-workers employed at more than one facility is a recipe for disaster when it comes to COVID-19, a pathogen that spreads and infects without discrimination. The same vulnerabilities exist within the correctional system, where they are intensified. Inmates and corrections staff are simply unable to practice crucial social distancing. Personal protective equipment for inmates has not been prioritized as it has in other sectors, despite these individuals being at a much higher risk of getting sick.

The CSC responded to COVID-19 by prohibiting visits to inmates, temporary absences, work releases, and inmate transfers between correctional facilities. While these steps likely helped to curb the spread of the virus, as a whole, they are grossly inadequate. Without a vaccine, social distancing remains our greatest defence against the virus. For the inmates at Mission Institution and those incarcerated at facilities across Canada, proper protective equipment is hard to come by, but hope is even harder.

Psychedelics and Automatism

“No person is criminally responsible for an act committed or an omission made while suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act or omission or of knowing that it was wrong”


He was a student and Captain of Mount Royal University’s hockey team – but that changed on January 13, 2018, after taking a large dose of magic mushrooms.

Shortly after ingesting 4 grams of mushrooms at a house party, Matthew Brown took off all of his clothing and disappeared into the freezing night. Eventually, he came upon the home of a Mount Royal University professor that he had never met before. He broke into her home and beat her with a broken broom handle, leaving her with severe injuries. After leaving her residence, he broke into another home where he was eventually apprehended by the police. 

On March 2, 2020, he was acquitted after mounting a successful defence of “non-insane automatism” resulting from severe self-intoxication.

Mr. Brown was acquitted and walked out of court a free man. His actions were found to be involuntary – but not by reason of mental disorder. His defence of non-insane automatism resulting from severe self-intoxication was only available after a pre-trial ruling in which a judge found that Section 33.1 of the Criminal Code, prohibiting self-intoxication as a defence, was unconstitutional.

Non-insane automatism and insane automatism both involve an Accused person that was unaware of the consequences of their actions at the time of the offence, and therefore could not form intent required to prosecute the offence.

In Mr. Brown’s case, his automatism ended when the effects of the drugs wore off, and he was left with no memory of the event. Since his actions were not attributed to a disease that would have recurring symptoms, a Not Criminally Responsible according to Mental Disorder (NCRMD) finding would have been inappropriate.

A finding of NCRMD relates to automatism as a consequence of a mental disorder. Unlike automatism resulting from intoxication, it does not result in an acquittal. NCRMD is most commonly seen in cases where an Accused suffers from severe mental illness, such as schizophrenia. Across Canada, the number of Accused deemed NCRMD is small, however, media attention on these particular cases often results in public outrage.

After a judge has determined that an Accused is NCRMD, the case is usually handed over to the Review Board (governed by Province/Territory) where there are three possible outcomes:

  • Absolute Discharge
  • Conditional Discharge
  • Detention in a hospital

While most cases do end up under the authority of the Review Board, the Court of hearing has the discretion to proceed to disposition if it feels appropriate in the circumstances. If the Court orders an Absolute Discharge (the only available option when the Accused has been found not to pose a significant risk to the public), the matter is concluded. If the Court orders a conditional discharge, or detention in a hospital, the Review Board must review the matter again with 90 days. In any circumstance, the Court or Review Board must impose whichever sentence is the least onerous and least restrictive on the Accused, all while balancing protection of the public and the interests, liberty and dignity of the Accused. There have been success stories, (which may again cause unnecessary alarm to the public) that demonstrate how effective rehabilitation of mentally ill offenders is far from hopeless. It is also important to note that the statistics surrounding NCRMD cases show that the prevalence of an NCRMD finding in relation to violent offences are low.