The Alberta Court of Appeal, in a 2-1 decision, upheld Steven Vollrath’s (“Vollrath”) 12-year prison sentence for cutting off his victim’s thumb during an abduction in a case of vigilantism.
Two of the three judges at the Court of Appeal ruled that Vollrath’s sentence at trial was appropriate for the well planned “revenge kidnapping”.
The Appeal Court denounced vigilantism and stated:
Vigilantism undermines the rule of law and interferes with the administration of justice. As a general rule, those who engage in it should be dealt with severely.
In May, 2013, Richard Suter (“Suter”) was parked next to a restaurant when he and his wife began having an argument. He failed to put his car in park, and as the car proceeded forward, he unintentionally pushed on the accelerator instead of the brake. The car advanced onto the restaurant’s patio striking and killing a two-year-old child.
Suter was convicted of failing to provide a breath sample. The trial judge found that the accident was caused by driver error and not drunkenness. The Supreme Court of Canada reduced Suter’s 26-month sentence to the 10 months he had already served in jail.
While Suter was awaiting trial, Vollrath, dressed as a police officer, and two accomplices rang Suter’s doorbell and abducted him in front of his wife. His captors revealed that the reason he was being abducted was that he had hit and killed a child with his car. Suter was taken to a snowy field, his thumb was cut off with pruning shears, and he was left unconscious in the snow.
Vollrath was convicted in 2016 of kidnapping, aggravated assault, possession of a weapon, and impersonating a police officer. Vollrath had a lengthy criminal record, including violent and weapons offences.
According to section 718 of the Criminal Code, the purpose of sentencing is to protect society and to impose sanctions that meet the following objectives:
- denounce unlawful conduct;
- deter the offender and others from committing offences;
- separate offenders from society;
- assist in rehabilitating offenders;
- provide reparations for harm done to victims or the community; and
- promote a sense of responsibility in offenders and acknowledge the harm done to victims or to the community.
Sentencing must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender.
In deciding on an appropriate sentence, the Court must consider aggravating and mitigating factors, sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences, and all available sanctions other than imprisonment must be considered.
In Mr. Vollrath’s case, the Court considered the following aggravating factors:
- he did not act alone;
- there was advance planning involved in committing the offences;
- he impersonated a police officer with the purpose of facilitating another offence;
- the incident began at the Suter’s home;
- the kidnapping and assault were targeted;
- leaving Suter maimed and unconscious in a deserted area showed a callous indifference to whether he lived or died;
- the lasting physical harm to Suter;
- the psychological impact to both Mr. and Mrs. Suter;
- Vollrath’s extensive criminal record; and
- Vollrath was on release at the time of the offences.
The Court is also obligated to consider background factors for aboriginal offenders and to consider how these factors affect the offending behaviour. In Mr. Vollrath’s case, the Court found that he had no connection with his aboriginal culture at the time he became incarcerated. Furthermore, the Court held that Vollarth’s dysfunctional background was not connected to his aboriginal history as his biological father, who was a Metis man, left him when he was very young.
In coming to a conclusion in her 2016 sentencing decision, Justice E. A. Johnson of the Provincial Court of Alberta felt that the most important objective was to “denounce the acts and to deter Mr. Vollrath and others from engaging in this kind of behaviour.” Justice Johnson also considered the objectives of separating the offender from society and rehabilitation. Therefore, Justice Johnson concluded that 12 years of incarceration were fitting given the seriousness of the offence, the degree of responsibility of the offender, the aggravating factors, and the need for denunciation and deterrence. The majority of the Alberta Court of Appeal agreed with this sentencing decision.
WHAT COMES NEXT FOR VOLLRATH?
At the Court of Appeal, the dissenting judge held that Vollrath should have been sentenced to nine years in jail after taking into account the deprivations of his childhood.
Given that there was a dissenting opinion on appeal, Vollrath has the option of appealing his case to the Supreme Court of Canada. However, the Supreme Court of Canada will only hear a case if it is convinced that the case involves a question of public importance. Approximately 1 out of 10 cases that request “leave” to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada receive permission.
We will continue to follow this case and will report any developments on this blog.
In the meantime, if you have been charged with a criminal offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced and knowledgeable criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. We offer a 24-hour phone service to protect your rights and to ensure that you have access to justice at all times. We are available when you need us most.