Words and Misdeeds

Following up on my musings here and here on the reasons why we think it is sometimes permissible to punish a person for saying something that is likely to cause others to act in a certain way, and sometimes not, my friend Simon Murray asks a very sensible question: in what other cases do we sanction people on the basis of a possible reaction of others to his words?

The answer is that we do it in quite a range of situations. The Criminal Code is replete with incitement offences, which criminalize statements made by one person because of the intended reaction to these words by another, to whom they were addressed.

There is a general incitement offence in s. 22, which provides that

22. (1) Where a person counsels another person to be a party to an offence and that other person is afterwards a party to that offence, the person who counselled is a party to that offence, notwithstanding that the offence was committed in a way different from that which was counselled.

(2) Every one who counsels another person to be a party to an offence is a party to every offence that the other commits in consequence of the counselling that the person who counselled knew or ought to have known was likely to be committed in consequence of the counselling.

(3) For the purposes of this Act, “counsel” includes procure, solicit or incite.

(It is not necessary, by the way, that person whom the accused incited to commit an offence actually have committed it: see, for example,  R. v. Hamilton,  2005 SCC 47, [2005] 2 S.C.R. 432.)

But there are also specific incitement offences: for example incitement to mutiny (s. 53), counselling piracy (s. 75), incitement to various illegal sexual acts (ss. 152 et seq., 160), counselling suicide (par. 241(a)), advocating genocide (s. 318) and incitement of hatred against an identifiable group (s. 319), and others.

What is interesting is that the Criminal Code sanctions incitement not only of crimes, but also of things that are not criminal or even immoral. For instance, racial hatred is immoral, but not in itself criminal, yet incitement to it is. And suicide is arguably―though this is admittedly controversial―not even immoral, never mind criminal. To be sure, the criminalization of incitement to suicide probably dates to a time when suicide was in fact regarded as immoral. But, despite thinking that a person who commits suicide is not acting immorally (at least as a general matter; there might be specific exceptions depending on the circumstances), I do think that it is immoral to incite someone to do it, and I’m not convinced that we are wrong to criminalize such incitement.

On the other hand, I do think that criminalizing other forms of incitement, even of incitement to immoral actions, would be wrong. (Consider, for example, imposing a criminal sanction for incitement to adultery.) And for the most part, the Criminal Code sanctions incitement to commit crimes, not merely morally reprehensible acts. So, once again, it seems that the law is all over the place here, and so are my own intuitions. Maybe Parliament and I are just being inconsistent. But maybe there is a deeper logic to it all, which I haven’t so far been able to figure out. I’m afraid I’m not especially knowledgeable about criminal law and theory, so that’s certainly possible.

Minus the Mandatory Minimum

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, [1986] 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.