Yet another “tough on crime” attempt to deny judges discretion about to be struck down
Last week, the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench issued yet another in a long series of constitutional reverses for the previous federal government’s “tough on crime” agenda, holding in R v Ndhlovu, 2016 ABQB 595 that legislative amendments that rendered the making of sex-offender registration orders mandatory was contrary to section 7 of the Charter. It is, as yet, not a finding of unconstitutionality, because ― quite unusually ― the Crown asked and will permitted to proceed separately with a justification under section 1 of the Charter, but successful justifications of section 7 infringements are vanishingly rare. More of the same, then, in that as in many cases where the courts have struck down mandatory minimum sentences, Parliament’s attempt to take discretion away from sentencing judges is deemed to be the source of constitutional difficulty ― albeit on a somewhat different basis.
In 2004, Parliament enacted the Sex Offender Information Registration Act, which allowed prosecutors to seek orders requiring those convicted of certain offences to register with and provide extensive information to the police, who can conduct random checks to ensure that the information provided by the offender is correct. Non-compliance is itself an offence and can lead to heavy fines or imprisonment. In recognition of the fact that these requirement would not always be appropriate, Parliament allowed judges to reject the prosecutors’ applications “if the effects of the order on the offender’s privacy or liberty interests were grossly disproportionate to the public interest in protecting society” by acquiring information about the offender. In 2011, however, Parliament changed this regime when it enacted the Protecting Victims from Sex Offenders Act. Among other things, that statute dispensed with the need for prosecutors to seek a registration order (and thus their discretion not to do so), and the judges’ discretion not to make an order.
The constitutionality of the discretionary regime of the 2004 version of the Act had been challenged a number of times, but was upheld. In Ndhlovu, it was the mandatory character of registration requirements as they now stand that was alleged to be unconstitutional. The Crown having conceded that the legislation interfered with liberty ― presumably, because of the possibility of imprisonment for non-compliance ― the main question for Justice Moen was whether that interference was arbitrary, overbroad, or grossly disproportional. The registration regime’s purpose is mainly to help police investigate known or suspected sexual offences by providing them with accessible information about known offenders ― on the theory that they are likely to re-offend. The 2011 amendments to the legislation added a further purpose of “preventing” sexual offences, although it is not clear how this to be achieved, and not much is made of this further purpose in Justice Moen’s reasons. The question, then, is whether the regime does in fact serve to help investigate offenses at all (otherwise, it would be arbitrary), whether it fails to do so in some instances (which would make it overbroad), and whether its effect in doing so is grossly disproportionately small relative to its consequences on the persons subject to the regime.
Justice Moen rejected the arbitrariness claim. The Crown argued that the registration regime “is based on the assumption that convicted sex offenders have an increased propensity to commit sex crimes”  ― without, it would seem, any data to support this “assumption”. Whether the judge accepted the Crown’s argument is not quite clear to me. He wrote that “[t]here is, no doubt, a statistical probability that a sex offender will offend again”  That’s true so far as it goes, but put this way, the sentence would still be true even if data showed that sex offenders were actually less likely than the rest of the population to commit sexual offences in the future ― there would still be “a statistical probability”. Perhaps this is not what Justice Moen means ― but that suggests that he might not understand the concept of “statistical probability” (is there any other kind?) very well.
This is ultimately irrelevant. The heart of the matter for Justice Moen is overbreadth. Already in his arbitrariness analysis he follows up the sentence about “statistical probabilities” by observing that “statistical probabilities cannot protect individuals who will not probably find themselves on that statistical curve ever again”.  Again, this might not be very rigorous from a scientific point of view, but what Justice Moen means is that for those offenders who are deemed unlikely to re-offend, registration does little to help police investigate future crimes ― which they presumably are not likely to commit. The Crown conceded as much, but argued that it was impossible to tell which offenders fell in that category. In Justice Moen’s view, however, this argument goes towards establishing a section 1 justification rather denying the existence of overbreadth at the section 7 stage.
In addition, Justice Moen found that mandatory registration is grossly disproportional to its purpose. Those required to register are asked to supply a considerable amount of information, and “the effects of random compliance checks, including the risks of information being divulged during these checks” are significant. (There was evidence that the Edmonton police had a policy intended to minimize these effects and risks, but it was only a policy, not law.) The discretion that used to exist in the registration legislation was an attempt to strike a constitutionally-minded balance between these effects and the needs of law enforcement. With the exemption gone, the law is unconstitutional.
Subject to my reservations about Justice Moen’s understanding of elementary notions of statistics, this seems right. I’d like to venture a couple of observations though. First, still on the statistical theme, I think it is remarkable that both the Crown and, possibly, Justice Moen are content to operate on mere “assumptions” about the propensity of categories of people to commit crimes. Is an assumption all it takes to restrict constitutional rights? Perhaps the Crown will yet come up with actual evidence at the section 1 hearing, but the fact-free nature of the proceedings so far is depressing. Second, speaking of the section 1 hearing, I don’t recall seeing Charter proceedings bifurcated in this way before. I’m not sure whether this development, if it takes hold, would be a good or a bad thing. In any case, it’s worth keeping an eye on, though it is only potentially relevant in a relatively small number of cases, as the infringement of a right is often a foregone conclusion and section 1 is all there is to debate.
Finally, I think it’s useful to note that this case illustrates just how narrow a concept arbitrariness in the section 7 sense is. Suppose that the assumption about sex offenders being prone to recidivism is not correct. (I don’t know whether it is, but assumptions have a way of turning out to be false from time to time.) If so, singling out sex offenders for registration would be arbitrary in the sense that it would illogical and capricious, which is how a layperson would use the term arbitrariness. But the legal test ― would registration contribute to the objective of facilitating the investigation of crime ― would still be satisfied. This test can, indeed, justify the registration of every person in Canada on the same terms as sex offenders, since it would no doubt help make police work easier. A programme of wholesale registration and surveillance would be overbroad and grossly disproportionate, but not arbitrary in the constitutional sense. Keep this in mind when courts do strike down laws as arbitrary ― those rare cases are well and truly egregious abuses of the legislative power.
The late administration’s “tough on crime” agenda was bad enough though. Built on assumptions and without regard to justice in individual cases, it will not be missed. While I have been and remain skeptical of claims to the effect that removing judicial discretion in sentencing somehow attacks the judiciary, it is quite clearly often inconsistent with individual rights. But one must hope that the courts will not do too much collateral damage to the law in the process of upholding these rights, important though they are.