| 21 April 2024, Sunday |

Canada’s Supreme Court gives mixed rulings on gun crime penalties

In two rulings released on Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada struck down one mandatory minimum term for a firearm offense and upheld two others.

Two of the three cases in question made use of hypothetical situations that, according to the defense attorney, may make these minimum requirements unlawful in some circumstances because they would amount to cruel and unusual punishment.

Advocates and attorneys in Canada have criticized mandatory minimum sentences, arguing that they rob judges of their discretion and unfairly punish Indigenous and Black individuals who are overrepresented in jails and in the country’s criminal justice system.

Canada has tighter gun laws than the United States but higher rates of gun ownership than some other rich countries. The federal government has been criticized by some gun rights advocates for tightening gun laws, including through a freeze on handgun purchases.

In one case, Jesse Dallas Hills had pleaded guilty to four charges, including recklessly discharging a firearm at a home in 2014 in Lethbridge, Alberta. That charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of four years.

His counsel argued that in some cases, this mandatory minimum could constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial judge agreed; the appeal court did not.

The Hills ruling found this mandatory minimum unconstitutional and also said courts “should consider the effect of a sentence on the particular offender.” This is significant, said lawyer Chris Rudnicki, because it will oblige judges to consider whether Black or Indigenous offenders will have a harder time behind bars and perhaps change sentencings with that in mind.

In another case, Ocean Hilbach pleaded guilty to robbery with a prohibited firearm in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2017. The trial judge declared the five-year mandatory minimum penalty unconstitutional, and an appeals court upheld that finding.

The Supreme Court determined that punishment to be lawful, along with the one imposed on Curtis Zwozdesky, who admitted to armed robbery. His attorney presented a fictitious scenario to support the claim that the four-year minimum sentence was cruel and unusual punishment.

More than a dozen obligatory minimum sentences were eliminated by the Canadian government last year, and some of them have been overturned by provincial courts, but 53 criminal offenses still have mandatory minimum sentences, according to the justice department.

An email from a department of justice spokeswoman stated: “The Department of Justice is aware of a total of 174 lower and appellate courts decisions that have deemed (mandated minimum punishments) unconstitutional.”

  • Reuters