Last week, another mandatory minimum sentence introduced as part of the federal government’s “tough-on-crime” agenda was declared unconstitutional, this time by the Ontario Court of Justice. The provision at issue in R. v. Lewis, 2012 ONCJ 413, is par. 99(2)(a) of the Criminal Code, and imposes a mandatory minimum of three-years’ imprisonment for a first-time firearms trafficking offence.
The accused had sold some cocaine to an undercover police officer posing as a low-level dealer, and offered to sell him a handgun. The judge found, however, that that was a “hollow offer” never intended to be followed through on. The accused never had a gun or access to one―he only boasted of his ability to procure one in order to keep his new client’s business. Still, offering to sell a firearm is enough to bring one within the scope of the trafficking provision of the Criminal Code. After he was arrested and charged, he pled guilty to three counts of trafficking in cocaine, but challenged the charge of weapons-trafficking, arguing that the mandatory minimum sentence on it was unconstitutional because contrary to the prohibition on “cruel and unusual … punishment” in s. 12 of the Charter.
Adopting the test developed by the Superior Court in cases dealing with another mandatory minimum provision, justice Bellefontaine held that he had to decide, first, whether the sentence he would impose absent the mandatory minimum would in fact be less than that minimum, and second, if so, whether it was contrary to s. 12 and could not be saved by s. 1 of the Charter. To the first question, the judge answered that, although the accused’s blameworthiness for this offence was ” at the very low end of the spectrum of offences” since he never actually meant to sell a firearm, in view of his rather lengthy history of criminality, some of it violent, a one-year sentence would have been appropriate. That, of course, is well short of the statutory minimum.
The question of that minimum’s constitutionality must then be dealt with. The test set out by the Supreme Court “is whether [the sentence] is so excessive or grossly disproportionate as to outrage standards of decency.” This test must be applied both to the actual circumstances of the accused and to a reasonable hypothetical case; if the sentence fails it in either instance, it is unconstitutional. As applied to Mr. Lewis, the judge finds that the statutory minimum is disproportionate, but not so grossly as to be unconstitutional, given his “significant criminal antecedents and entrenched devotion to a criminal lifestyle.” The outcome is different, however, for a hypothetical accused in whose case these aggravating circumstances would not be present and who would be, say, trafficking in marijuana rather than cocaine. In that case, says justice Bellefontaine, a three year sentence would be outrageously disproportionate:
[w]hile the words “one year” or “two years” or “three years” slide off the tongue equally easily, they represent large magnitudes of difference to a youthful first offender serving the sentence. A three year sentence will necessarily be served in the harsh environment of a federal penitentiary with generally older and many hardened violent criminals. Such a length of sentence and the severe environment it would be served in would effectively eliminate rehabilitation as a sentencing objective when it should be the primary purpose of sentencing for a youthful first offender. That length of sentence would not be required for specific deterrence. Such a grossly disproportionate sentence could not be justified on the basis of general deterrence or the protection of the public.
The judge then proceeds to the s. 1 analysis. After referring to another recent mandatory-minimum case, he concludes that
Parliament has imposed a minimum penalty that addresses a worse case offence but which grossly over penalizes the many lesser ways that the same crime can be committed. The minimum three year sentence does not address the different degrees of moral blame worthiness associated with the different circumstances under which the offence can be committed and accordingly the penalty does not meet the minimal impairment and proportionality tests in R. v. Oakes,  1 S.C.R. 103 and cannot be justified under Section 1.
The judge briefly considers reading down the mandatory minimum to apply to actual trafficking cases, as opposed to those, such as the one at bar, of offers to traffic, but finally declines to do so. Accordingly, he declares the mandatory minimum provision unconstitutional.
James Morton, a former president of the Ontario Bar Association, argues that this is the wrong decision. “[W]ould reasonable people really be outraged by a fixed minimum sentence of three years for firearms trafficking? Is such a punishment truly grossly excessive? … The gun trafficking minimum sentence is one of those areas where the courts should have exercised more deference to parliament.” I don’t think so. If the constitution invalidates excessive sentences, just like it invalidates, say, laws infringing on freedom of speech, or federal laws invading provincial jurisdiction, then why should courts be more deferential to allegedly unconstitutionally harsh laws than to other potentially unconstitutional ones? What Mr. Morton’s comments do suggest is that it is problematic for courts to make popular feeling, of which they cannot be very good judges, a criterion of constitutionality. I doubt that courts actually take such references to popular feeling very seriously. But if so, they should drop the pretense.