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February 20, 2010

Canada's Supreme Court authorizes discount for police misconduct while upholding mandatory sentencing term

As detailed in this article from the Toronto Star, which is headlined "High court clarifies minimum sentences: They can be lowered to remedy police abuse, but in most cases mandatory penalty must apply," the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a very interesting sentencing ruling late yesterday. Here are the basics:

Trial judges can lower sentences to denounce police misconduct, but in most cases cannot undercut a mandatory minimum penalty set by Parliament, the country's top court says.  The Supreme Court of Canada's ruling stems from a 2004 Alberta case in which a drunk driver was beaten by police. 

The decision is considered important because it focuses on mandatory minimum penalties, a contentious tool the federal Conservatives have increasingly invoked in their "tough-on-crime" agenda.  The top court did not rule out the "possibility that, in exceptional cases" of egregious behaviour by police, a sentence could be reduced below a limit set out in law. "A sentence cannot be 'fit' if it does not respect the fundamental values enshrined in the Charter," wrote Justice Louis LeBel in the 9-0 decision.

The ruling upheld an Alberta Court of Appeal and trial judge's findings that the RCMP used excessive force when arresting a drunk driver in Leduc in 2004. But the high court agreed with the Alberta appeal court, which restored a mandatory minimum $600 fine for impaired driving on top of a 12-month conditional discharge and one-year driving prohibition.

The Supreme Court's ruling is meant to give guidance to situations in which lower courts have taken different approaches in using sentence reduction as a way to respond to Charter breaches.  But it clearly reinforces the need for courts to respect Parliament's decisions to set sentencing floors....

LeBel said "the general rule" is that judges exercising sentencing discretion must follow the guidelines set out by Parliament, and "impose sentences respecting statutory minimums" or other legislated limits on sentencing discretion. There may be "exceptional" cases in which a sentence ought to be reduced even below a statutory minimum, where a lower sentence might be the "sole effective remedy for some particularly egregious form of misconduct by state agents," the high court said.

[The defendant Lyle] Nasogaluak pleaded guilty at trial to impaired driving and flight from police – offences that ordinarily would have drawn six to 18 months in jail and a mandatory fine of $600.

At sentencing, he sought and won a reduced sentence because of the police misconduct.  The judge ruled police had violated his Charter rights and gave him two conditional 12-month discharges and banned him from driving for a year.

The Supreme Court agreed the police had used excessive force, violating his right to "life, liberty and security of the person" under the Charter. The high court said Nasogaluak's penalty was rightly reduced by the trial judge. LeBel said judges at sentencing may consider "not only the actions of the offender, but also those of state actors."

The full ruling in Regina v. Nasogaluak, 2010 SCC 6 (Canada Feb. 19, 2010), can be accessed at this link.

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February 20, 2010 at 10:24 AM | Permalink

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Comments

This is a great idea. Why not extend it to other state-actor violations. How about for every Brady and Giglio violation that's found to be harmless error, a defendant gets 25% off his sentence.

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It’s great to see good information being shared and also to see fresh, creative ideas that have never been done before.

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