A Strike against Three Strikes

The Superior Court of Ontario has struck down another element of the Conservative government’s “though-on-crime” legislative programme last week, in R. v. Hill, 2012 ONSC 5050. (I blogged about another such case here.) The provision at issue in Hill was s. 753(1.1) of the Criminal Code, which provides that if an accused is convicted of one of a list of offences (mostly, but not only, sexual and/or violent ones) and a sentence of two years’ imprisonment or more would be appropriate, and the accused has already been twice convicted of one of the same list of offences, then the accused is presumed to satisfy the criteria for being declared a dangerous offender, unless he proves the contrary on a balance of probabilities, which will normally lead to the imposition of an indefinite sentence of imprisonment. It is a milder version of the three-strikes-and-you-are-out laws popular in certain quarters in the United States, although it creates a rebuttable presumption rather than imposing life imprisonment automatically.

Mr. Hill challenged s. 753(1.1) on the basis that it contravened the presumption of innocence protected by s. 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments protected by s. 12, and the right not to be deprived of liberty except in accordance with principles of fundamental justice, protected by s. 7. of the Charter. Justice Bryant’s decision deals mostly with s. 7. (S. 11(d) doesn’t apply at the sentencing stage, and there is no need to consider s. 12).

S. 7 is obviously engaged by s. 753(1.1) of the Criminal Code, since it makes the imposition of an indeterminate sentence much more likely than it would have been in its absence. Instead of the Crown having to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that an accused meets the criteria for being classified as a dangerous offender, as it has to prove any other element of the offence or aggravating circumstance that can increase the sentence to be imposed, s. 753(1.1) provides that the accused is presumed to meet these criteria unless he can show otherwise. The reversal of the burden of proof is all the more significant since it frees the Crown not from the civil balance-of-probabilities burden, but from the much heavier beyond-reasonable-doubt one.

That is problematic, holds justice Bryant. After reviewing the jurisprudence on the presumption of innocence (which is relevant, despite not being directly applicable at the sentencing stage, once the accused’s guilt has been established) and the burden of proof in criminal cases, he concludes that “the onus and standard of proof for aggravating factors are principles of fundamental justice” within the meaning of the Charter (par. 52). Yet even if the accused manages to raise reasonable doubts about whether he really meets the criteria to be classified a dangerous offender, s. 753(1.1) provides that he must still be classified as such, if he cannot meet the rather more difficult standard of the balance of probabilities. For this reason, s. 753(1.1) is “in prima facie violation of the principles of  fundamental justice” (par. 56). Justice Bryant refers to R. v. D.B., 2008 SCC 25, [2008] 2 S.C.R. 3, in which Justice Abella argued, in her majority reasons, that

[a] young person should receive, at the very least, the same procedural benefit afforded to a convicted adult on sentencing, namely, that the burden is on the Crown to demonstrate why a more severe sentence is necessary and appropriate in any given case (par. 82).

The circle is now complete: young offenders must receive the same benefits as adults; adults now must receive the same benefit as young offenders. That seems like a dubious argument to me, but the conclusion that freeing the Crown from the burden of proving an aggravating factor beyond a reasonable doubt is contrary to fundamental principles of Canadian criminal law seems exactly right.

Justice Bryant then turns to the government’s attempt to justify s. 753(1.1) pursuant to s. 1 of the Charter. Its objective of protecting members of the public against threats to their life and health is pressing and substantial. But it is not necessary to achieve it:  “[t]he Crown did not adduce evidence that a reversal of the onus of proof was necessary to overcome practical evidentiary hurdles which impede the successful prosecution of dangerous offenders” (par. 64). The Crown has access to the necessary evidence; it can require the accused to undergo a psychiatric assessment. It doesn’t need the shortcut created by s. 753(1.1). Furthermore, as the Supreme Court held in D.B., even if the possibility of a heavy (or, here, indefinite) sentence being imposed is necessary to protect the public it is not necessary for its imposition to be easy. Justice Bryant concludes that “it is the availability of an indeterminate sentence which advances the objective of the protection of the public rather than the allocation of the onus of proof to the offender” (par. 70). For no benefit, s. 753(1.1) exacts a heavy cost since, as the Crown’s expert psychiatrist testified, it might require the indefinite imprisonment of people the basis of evidence which, from a scientific point of view, is insufficient to deem them dangerous. It is thus not only unnecessary, but disproportionate. S. 1 cannot save it.

Sounds right to me. Too bad though, that we don’t have a three-strikes-and-you’re-out rule of constitutionality: there have already been more than three strikes against the Tories’ tough-on-crime legislation.

One thought on “A Strike against Three Strikes

  1. Pingback: Petty Punishment | Double Aspect

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