Ontario Judge Strikes Down Mandatory Minimum Sentence for Indigenous Offender Convicted for Impaired Driving

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

Justice Paul Burstein has declared that Canada’s impaired driving laws are unconstitutional.

Justice Burstein ruled in the case of R. v. Luke that the mandatory requirement for a criminal conviction of a first impaired driving offence violates the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

WHAT HAPPENED?

Morgan Luke (“Luke”) is a 22-year-old Indigenous woman from the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation.  She was raised by her mother and maternal grandparents.  Her Aboriginal ancestry is derived from her father, who she did not see much as she was growing up.  He was a drug addict, alcoholic and had a lengthy criminal record. 

As she grew older, Luke began to spend time at the Scugog Island reserve, participating in cultural activities and working summer jobs.  She also had contact with her paternal family on the reserve.

Luke’s mother became ill when she was 15 years old, at which point she began spending more time with her father and moved to the Scugog Island reserve for 2 years.  She began abusing drugs and alcohol and dating an older man who was a serious drug addict.

On November 4, 2017, Luke took her mother’s car without consent.  She accelerated quickly out of the parking lot, causing the back of the car to slide out.  She overcorrected and the car hit a curb and left the ground.  The car landed on the sidewalk, just missing a lamp post. 

Luke proceeded along Highway 7A when she was stopped by the police.  The officer noticed a strong odour of alcohol on her breath and she admitted to having consumed alcohol.  She was arrested for impaired driving and breath tests showed that her blood alcohol concentration was almost three times the legal limit. 

According to Luke, she had been drinking all afternoon as she was upset after seeing her cousin with her boyfriend.

Following her arrest, Luke began counselling with two professionals associated with the Scugog First Nation.  She has stopped using drugs and alcohol and has plans to finish high school and become a youth worker on the reserve.

THE CONSTITUTIONAL ARGUMENTS

Luke pleaded guilty to the charge of driving while impaired by alcohol.  Section 255(1) of the Criminal Code provides a mandatory minimum sentence of a fine of not less than $1,000 to an individual who has been found guilty of impaired driving for the first time.  This would result in a conviction and a criminal record.

According to section 730 of the Criminal Code, a court may grant an absolute or conditional discharge when it is in the best interest of the individual and is not against the public interest.  A discharge of this nature does not result in a criminal conviction or a criminal record.   However, under this section of the Criminal Code, discharges are not available to offenders who have been found guilty of offences that hold a mandatory minimum punishment.

Luke challenged the constitutionality of section 255 of the Criminal Code as it applies to the sentencing in her case.  It was Luke’s position that section 255(1), which prevents the consideration of a discharge, violates her rights under the Charter.   It was argued that the legislation provides a mandatory minimum sentence rather than allowing for a consideration of a discharge, thus allowing a punishment that is “grossly disproportionate” to an otherwise appropriate sentence.

On the other hand, the prosecuting Crown lawyers argued that section 255 does not violate the Charter, given the seriousness of the offence of impaired driving.  Although the mandatory minimum punishment may seem disproportionate in some cases, it is not “grossly” disproportionate, which is the requirement for a Charter violation. 

It is well-established law that legislative provisions which provide mandatory minimum sentences that are “grossly disproportionate” to an appropriate sentence will be found to infringe the Charter.  A court must consider the following in these circumstances:

  1. What would be the appropriate sentence for the offence taking into account the circumstances of the offence and of the offender?
  2. Is the prescribed mandatory minimum sentence grossly disproportionate to the otherwise appropriate sentence for the offender?
  3. If not grossly disproportionate for the offender before the court, could “reasonable foreseeable applications” of the mandatory minimum sentence result in grossly disproportionate sentences for other hypothetical offenders?

If the court finds that the mandatory minimum sentence would be grossly disproportionate for either the offender or another hypothetical offender, it must find that the provision is inconsistent with section 12 of the Charter.

OFFENDER’S INDIGENOUS STATUS CONSIDERED IN RULING

Justice Burstein stated that the mandatory minimum sentence prevents him from considering several factors fundamental to a just and appropriate sanction, including:

  1. She is a young first time offender with strong rehabilitative potential;
  2. The offence was motivated by her alcohol addiction and her continued treatment is expected to effectively deal with this issue; and
  3. The offence was connected to her Aboriginal background and her Aboriginal heritage provides for rehabilitative and restorative sentencing options.

Justice Burstein found that imposing the shame of a criminal record for impaired driving would amount to a grossly disproportionate sentencing implication for Luke.  Justice Burstein wrote:

On the facts of this particular case, I find that it would not be contrary to the public interest to grant Ms. Luke a conditional discharge and thereby relieve her of the lasting consequences of a criminal record.  I am satisfied that a driving prohibition and two years of probation will adequately achieve the level of denunciation and deterrence required in this particular case, while still respecting the importance of Ms. Luke’s rehabilitative potential.

Justice Burstein granted Luke a conditional discharge with various conditions, including to attend counselling and treatment, perform community service work, attend school or maintain a job, and to only operate a motor vehicle when travelling to or from work, school or counselling appointments.

If you have been charged with impaired driving or any other driving offence, please contact the experienced criminal defence lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  We offer 24-hour phone service to ensure you have access to justice at all times.