Judges of the Alberta Court of Appeal question the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on mandatory minimum sentences

Last month the Alberta Court of Appeal issued an interesting decision that concerned the constitutionality of yet another mandatory minimum sentence, this one in section 244.2 of the Criminal Code, for “intentionally discharg[ing] a firearm into or at a place, knowing that or being reckless as to whether another person is present in the place”. The mandatory minimum is four years’ imprisonment (or more if organized crime is involved). For fairly straightforward rasons given by Justice Antonio, R v Hills, 2020 ABCA 263, upholds the four-year mandatory minimum, rejecting the claim that it is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

But in separate concurring reasons Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling go on to criticize the Supreme Court’s approach for dealing with such cases. Both concurring opinions raise important questions, not only about the correct approach to mandatory minimum sentences under section 12 of the Charter, but also about constitutional interpretation and construction more broadly.

In this post, I summarize Justice Antonio’s lead opinion, as well as the common aspects of the two concurring ones, and explain why I think the Supreme Court is right and Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling are wrong about section 12. In a follow up post, I shall write in some detail about Justice Wakeling’s opinion, which is startling, and startlingly wrong, in its method and tone, and deserves special attention and criticism.

In R v Smith, [1987] 1 SCR 1045 and, more recently, R v Nur, 2015 SCC 15, [2015] 1 SCR 773, the Supreme Court held that a mandatory minimum sentence that is “grossly disproportionate” to the gravity and blameworthiness of an offence is “cruel and unusual” within the meaning of section 12. Gross disproportionality can be shown either in the particular case or, alternatively ― and controversially ―, in a reasonable hypothetical, a set of circumstances that can be expected to occur and that would be captured by the impugned provision. This is the approach that the accused in Hills took.

Mr. Hills pleaded guilty to having repeatedly fired a rifle “suitable for big game hunting” [4] into the walls and windows of a family residence ― among with less frightening misdeeds, all part of a rampage undertaken in a state that a former Toronto mayor would have described as drunken stupor. The sentencing judge considered that the mandatory minimum would not be grossly disproportionate to his offence, but it could be in a reasonable hypothetical, mainly because the applicable definition of “firearm” captures weapons shown by an expert to be incapable of penetrating a typical building wall. One could therefore reasonably imagine the four-year sentence being imposed on a person who fired a weapon “at a place” whose occupants were not thereby endangered. The judge sentenced Mr. Hills to three and a half years’ imprisonment.

Justice Antonio (with whose reasons Justice O’Ferrall agrees, so far as they go) considers this to be an error. This is because the shots fired even from low-power weapons might “penetrate a door or window”. [80] Moreover, the weapons or the shots might alarm bystanders or the people inside the place at which they are fired, and generally undermine “the feeling the safety in communities”. [82] Justice Antonio also refers to Nur, where

 a 40-month sentence was imposed on a 19-year-old first offender who merely possessed a loaded firearm in a public place for a short period of time and did not discharge it or use it in a threatening manner. If 40 months was an appropriate sentence in the Nur case, then an additional eight months as a mandatory minimum penalty where a firearm was actually used does not amount to a grossly disproportionate sentence.

Justice Antonio concludes that a fit sentence for Mr. Hills would be four and a half years’ imprisonment.

As mentioned above, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling both call for the Supreme Court’s decisions in Smith and Nur to be revisited insofar as they require the courts to undertake gross disproportionality analysis based on reasonable hypotheticals, and not only the facts before the sentencing court. Some of the arguments they make are similar. I address them here. Justice Wakeling’s opinion also makes additional points not raised by Justice O’Ferrall. I turn to them below.

The main argument on which Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling rely is that the use of reasonable hypotheticals to test the constitutionality of mandatory minimum sentences is inconsistent with the import of section 12. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

[a]n interpretation [of the Charter] which relies on the presumed detriment to a non-existent offender if a certain term of imprisonment is imposed is not an interpretation which a citizen would contemplate. It is an interpretation which might legitimately surprise the citizen. It does not flow logically from the text of s.12 of the Charter. [108; see aslo Justice Wakeling’s comment at [126]]

For Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling, since section 12 protects an individual “right not to be subjected to any cruel and unusual treatment or punishment”, only the situation of the offender before the court can be taken into consideration, and the courts should avoid invalidating provisions that might only hypothetically result in unconstitutional applications. Just as laws are not invalidated because they might be invoked to effect unconstitutional arrests, they should not be disturbed because they might, in some cases, lead to unconstitutional sentences. As Justice O’Ferrall puts it, “[b]ut for the approved reasonable hypothetical analysis, the accused could [sic] care less about the constitutionality of the law. His complaint is with respect to his treatment or punishment”. [109]

Indeed, Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling reject the test of “gross disproportionality” itself, which the Supreme Court has long used as a proxy for deciding whether a punishment is cruel and unusual. Justice O’Ferrall argues that

A sentence may be disproportionate from the perspective of both the offender and the offence and yet … prescribed to achieve the fundamental purpose of sentencing, namely protecting society. Even a grossly disproportionate sentence may not be found to constitute cruel and unusual punishment if, for example, in order to stem the tide of a deadly pandemic, Parliament found it necessary to prescribe extremely harsh punishments for what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors. [117; see also Justice Wakeling’s comment at [132]]

I do not think that any of this is right.

Start with the meaning of section 12. The concurring opinions go wrong because they fail to distinguish between the interpretation and the construction of constitutional provisions. Interpretation is the activity of ascertaining the communicative content of the text. Construction is the elaboration of doctrines that allow the text to be given legal effect. Some cases can be resolved at the interpretation stage. As I have argued here, the interpretation of section 12, and specifically of the word “cruel”, can tell us that this provision does not protect corporations. But in other cases courts need to engage in (good faith) construction to apply vague language ― and that of section 12 is vague, if not quite as vague as some commentators would have believe.

The word “cruel” is not infinitely malleable, but it is not self-explanatory either. Unless they are going to rely on seat-of-the-pants impressionistic decision-making in every case, courts need to work out a consistent way to determine whether a given sentence is cruel and unusual. This is an exercise in construction, which is a form of legal reasoning. Unlike in the realm of interpretation, the presumed (actually, purely conjectured) reactions of reactions of citizens are not a useful guide to what the courts should do here. The courts’ task is not to avoid surprises ― the framers of the constitution make a certain degree of judicial creativity unavoidable when they use vague language ― but rather, as Randy Barnett and Evan Bernick have argued, to give effect to the purpose of the provision.

Is the test of gross disproportionality a misguided construction of section 12? In my previous post on that provision’s meaning (linked to above) I have suggested that it is not, so far as the punishment of natural persons is concerned. I wrote that “disproportionality can be a useful indication of cruelty”, provided that “also causes or reflects indifference to suffering”, which may “always be the case with grossly disproportional punishment is inflicted on human beings”. Justice O’Ferrall’s example is ambiguous and does not persuade me. It may be taken to suggest that in the circumstances of “a deadly pandemic” “what otherwise might be regarded as minor misdemeanors” become extremely blameworthy crimes. If so, there is no gross disproportionality in punishing them harshly, so long as the relevant circumstances exist. But if Justice O’Ferrall suggests that a public emergency justifies harsh punishment of unrelated offences, I don’t see how that follows.

If not the gross disproportionality test, is the reasonable hypothetical approach an impermissible construction of section 12? Actually, I think there are very good reasons for the courts to adopt it. Contrary to what Justices O’Ferrall and Wakeling say, a mandatory minimum sentence impacts an offender as to whom it would not be cruel and unusual, albeit indirectly. As Justice Arbour explained in her concurrence in R v Morrisey, [2000] 2 SCR 90,

mandatory minimum sentences … must act as an inflationary floor, setting a new minimum punishment applicable to the so-called ‘best’ offender whose conduct is caught by these provisions.  The mandatory minimum must not become the standard sentence imposed on all but the very worst offender who has  committed the offence in the very worst circumstances.  The latter approach would not only defeat the intention of Parliament in enacting this particular legislation, but also offend against the general principles of sentencing designed to promote a just and fair sentencing regime and thereby advance the purposes of imposing criminal sanctions. [75] 

Justice Wakeling’s own reasons illustrate this dynamic. He breaks down the range of sentences permitted by Parliament into bands for the least and most serious cases, and those in the middle. On this approach, if Parliament enacts or raises the mandatory minimum, the sentences of most offenders, except perhaps the very worst ones, go up. Of course, Parliament is entitled to intervene in sentencing. But the fact that its intervention impacts all offenders means that it is appropriate to consider its constitutionality even in cases where the minimum sentence would not have been cruel and unusual. At the risk of mixing metaphors, I think it’s not an implausible construction of section 12 to say that it does not permit the inflationary floor to be sullied by the cruelty of sentences required to be imposed even on some, albeit not all, offenders.

The other reason for the courts to continue to police reasonable hypotheticals might sound more in policy, but it too is relevant to section 12. It is plea bargaining. A prosecutor can threaten an accused person with a high mandatory minimum sentence so as to secure a guilty plea to some other, less serious offence. By the very nature of such situations, there is no scope for the mandatory minimum to be challenged; indeed the offence to which it is attached never even features before a court. But to the extent that the mandatory minimum has served to secure a guilty plea from a person who might be innocent (or at least might be able to raise a reasonable doubt about his or her guilt), its deployment by the prosecutor is, arguably, a form of cruel and unusual treatment that offends the Charter.

It has been set that the judicial response to the last Conservative government’s “tough on crime” agenda has been nothing less than a rebellion. Justice Wakeling professes himself “extremely troubled by the fact that Canadian courts have been busy striking down Criminal Code provisions that impose mandatory-minimum sentences”. [123] The concurring opinions in Hills are a counter-rebellion of sorts, directed not against Parliament but against the Supreme Court.

But the rebels are wrong. Their approach to constitutional text, which collapses interpretation and construction and oversimplifies constitutional meaning is not compelling. They fail to see the repercussions of mandatory minimum laws that deserve the suspicion with which the courts have treated them. The Supreme Court has often read constitutional provisions ― both power-conferring and rights-protecting ones ― more expansively than it should have. But I am not convinced that this is the case with section 12 of the Charter.

PS: I have neglected blogging on judicial decisions in the last couple of months, and will try to make up at least some of this backlog. If you have a case I should get onto in mind, please do get in touch.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach public law and legal philosophy at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

3 thoughts on “Counter-Rebellion”

  1. I am submitting Jonsson v Lymer, 2020 ABCA 167 for you to do a blog. Many others are happy for “small mercies” from the ABCA. I just happen to think it falls too short in too many ways and I am frightened that it gives clerks/registry workers authority to declare litigants vexatious. That is very dangerous

    I happen to believe judges should not even have such powers and it should be reserved for elected officials and only as a group not as individuals

  2. The issue with section 12, in part, is the judicial reasoning as to how the court considers “reasonable hypotheticals”. In no area of constitutional law will a statute live or die singularly by the creativity of counsel or the judge. In Morrisey, the majority divined the reasonable hypotheticals by reference to existing case law: a cheat sheet to hypotheticals, of sorts. And while I think that is a principled way to go about it, it suffers where a statutory provision is new (and thus there is little to draw from) and misses untold unreported cases where defendants pleaded out.

    But then, when you have one-off analyses like this, about whether a gun could penetrate the wall and the like, what are we really doing here? Should there be an evidentiary burden to establish the plausibility, or are we left with what we always get, a subjective determination of the reasonability based on the idiosyncratic views of the decision-maker? Tough pill to swallow.

    But to return where I started, we never ask the question “Well, the statute does not violate the claimants equality right, but let’s offer some conjecture how it might in some other case we make up”. There are elements of that in a Big M analysis but not really in the same way.

    There is something to be said for testing the claimant’s case and if unconstitutional for him or her, then it falls. If not, the fact that one might one day come forward with an actual case of cruel and unusual, then that is when the statute shall fall, and not before.

    I think the real impetus behind Smith was a concern that one-off challenges would mean that EVERY accused would be able to challenge the statute on section 12, in every case, regardless of past case law which would by definition restricted to the facts. Fair concern, I suppose, but look at the mess that has resulted.

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