Drop That Gun! (But Keep the Bullets)

The Superior Court of Ontario has recently delivered its decision in The Queen v. Montague, 2012 ONSC 2300, an interesting case at the intersection of the topics property rights, and gun rights, about which I wrote here and here. In fact, in the latter post, I had mentioned a previous decision in this case, by the Ontario Court of Appeal, rejecting a challenge to the constitutionality of Canadian firearms law based mostly on the English Bill of Rights, 1689. The accused, William and Donna Montague (William, mostly), had been found guilty of a variety of firearms-related offences; they had deliberately let their licences and registration for their firearms lapse. Hundreds of weapons and tens of thousands of rounds of ammunition had been be seized at their residence. Following their convictions, the Crown applied for forfeiture of the weapons and ammunition, worth over $100,000, pursuant to par. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code, which provides that firearms and ammunition (inter alia) involved in or which are the subject matter of an offence, if it has been seized, “is for forfeited to Her Majesty and shall be disposed of as the Attorney General directs.”

The Montagues argued that the application of this provision, at least in their circumstances, would infringe their property rights protected by the par. 1(a) of the Canadian Bill of Rights. In their view, forfeiture – that is, a form of expropriation without compensation – should not be imposed automatically and for an offence which is a malum prohibitum rather than a malum in se. In such cases, “due process of law” – which the Canadian Bill of Rights makes a condition on any deprivation of property – requires a judge to have discretion to order that the property subject to par. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code be disposed of otherwise than by forfeiture (for example by transferring legal title to it to a trustee who would sell it for the former owners’ benefit). They also raised, in passing it would seem, ss. 7 and 12 of the Charter.

Justice Wright’s reasons are somewhat muddled―indeed it is not quite clear where he is summarizing the Crown’s position and where he is giving his own analysis of the issue. However, his conclusion is that “in a proper case s. 491(1)(b) of the Criminal Code might well be ‘construed and applied as not to abrogate, abridge, or infringe or to authorize the abrogation, abridgement or infringement’  of the accused’s right to enjoyment of property,” as s. 2 of the Canadian Bill of Rights requires. What this seems to mean is not that courts should only apply the Canadian Bill of Rights “in a proper case”―it’s a law after all, and must always be applied―but rather that “in a proper case” a court might exercise its discretion in the way suggested by the Montagues.

I doubt the soundness of this conclusion as a matter of black-letter law. As either Justice Wright or the Crown – unfortunately it is not clear which – notes, a notion of “substantive due process” has not, so far, been recognized in Canadian law. (Though of course “principles of fundamental justice” in s. 7 of the Charter are very substantive indeed. Yet the Supreme Court, in deciding, in Re B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, [1985] 2 S.C.R. 486 that they were so, made much of the fact that the Charter‘s drafters did not use the expression “due process”.)

As a matter of legal philosophy things are a bit more complicated. Jeremy Waldron argues persuasively that hearings and an opportunity to make submissions are a necessary part of any legal regime worth the name. Yet I do not think that this condemns automatic sanctions, be they forfeitures or―in different cases – mandatory prison sentences (such as the mandatory term of life imprisonment which the Criminal Code imposes for murder), on the basis that such sanctions are not properly legal. I do not think that every legal consequence of every fact need be up for argument, so long as the actual existence of the fact is required to be established in accordance with a good legal procedure. Such sanctions might be too harsh, but that is a different story. The claim that the concept of law or the Rule of Law has substantive (and not only formal and procedural) qualifications is very controversial; I, for one, do not buy it.

Be that as it may, Justice Wright refuses to exercise his new-found discretion to save the Montagues from the forfeiture of their firearms:

[41]      The firearms do not present a case where a citizen has unwittingly become embroiled in bureaucratic “red tape”.  They do not present a case where the forfeiture is so overwhelmingly disproportional to the offense that justice cries out for a remedy.

[42]      The firearms present a case where a knowledgeable individual cold bloodedly and with knowledge of the potential consequences deliberately and publicly broke the law. Courts cannot stand by and appear to condone such behavior. Civil Society is entitled to defend itself. Civil disobedience as a political technique is only morally justifiable and thus eligible for the protection of the court where the perpetrator has been denied access to the political institutions of the nation. This was the case at the time of Gandhi. This was the case at the time of Martin Luther King, Jr. They had no alternative other than violence which they both eschewed. Notwithstanding this, both of these individuals understood the needs of society and accepted the consequences of their civil disobedience.

He does exercise it, however, to reject the forfeiture of some of the ammunition, on the ground that it was not actually illegally stored. The jury found otherwise – but that, he says, is because they were not informed of the relevant regulations at trial. I’m not sure about the propriety of this intervention, even assuming that Justice Wright is correct about having the necessary discretion. I do not know enough, really, to form an opinion on this point. If you do, I would love to hear yours.

One thought on “Drop That Gun! (But Keep the Bullets)

  1. Pingback: Misfiring | Double Aspect

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