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Jurist Canada Supreme Court hands down varied rulings on firearm-related mandatory minimums

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Nov 11, 2016
The Supreme Court of Canada Friday published two opinions which respectively struck down the mandatory minimum sentence for discharging a firearm into a house and upheld the two mandatory minimums for armed robbery with a firearm. The court handed down both decisions simultaneously.

In R v. Hills the court considered whether the four-year mandatory minimum sentence for discharging a firearm into a house unjustifiably contravenes Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Section 12 of the Charter guarantees the right to be free from “cruel and unusual treatment or punishment.”

In 2014, Jesse Hills fired a rifle into a house occupied by two adults and two children, missing all occupants. After pleading guilty, Hills’ sentencing judge found the four-year mandatory minimum for his offense unconstitutional. The judge then sentenced Hills to three-and-a-half years in prison.

After two appeals, the Supreme Court held that the mandatory minimum would be “grossly disproportionate” in a foreseeable scenario and therefore unconstitutional. The court considered a hypothetical scenario where a young person shoots an air-powered rifle into a house. Justice Sheilah Martin, writing for the court, noted:

Here, the evidence showed that numerous air-powered rifles constituted “firearms”… It is also reasonably foreseeable that a young person could intentionally discharge such a “firearm” into or at a place of residence. This provision therefore applies to an offence that captures a wide spectrum of conduct, ranging from acts that present little danger to the public to those that pose a grave risk.
The court also ruled that the minimum could not be “saved” by Section 1 of the Charter, which sets limitations on rights.

Justice Suzanne Côté dissented from the ruling, saying that the scenario “does not involve the kind of conduct that the law may reasonably be expected to catch,” that air rifles must be deadly to be considered a “firearm” under law, and that the scenario ignores the mens rea requiring a person to know or be reckless as to whether someone is in a house they shoot into.

In R v. Hilbach, the court considered whether the five- and four-year mandatory minimums for two men convicted of armed robbery with a firearm were constitutional. Ocean Hilbach was sentenced to two years less a day for robbery with a prohibited firearm instead of the five-year minimum, and Curtis Zwozdesky was sentenced to three years in prison for armed robbery with a firearm instead of a four-year minimum. Both sentencing judges found that the mandatory minimums violated Section 12.

The Supreme Court disagreed and upheld both mandatory minimums in its decision. It allowed the Crown to appeal Hilbach’s sentence because his offense involved a prohibited firearm and harm to a store clerk. It also allowed the Crown’s appeal of Zwozdesky’s sentence to proceed after ruling that the hypothetical scenarios presented by Zwozdesky are either not foreseeable or do not involve a “grossly disproportionate” sentence.

Justices Andromache Karakatsanis and Mahmud Jamal dissented as they believed sending Hilbach to prison for five years would “[shock] the conscience” given his indigenous status and difficult childhood. They also believed that applying the four-year mandatory minimum in Zwozdesky’s hypotheticals would be “grossly disproportionate.”

The Supreme Court has struck down mandatory minimums for Section 12 violations before and notably did so in May 2022 when it struck down consecutive periods of parole ineligibility for those convicted of multiple murders.

The post Canada Supreme Court hands down varied rulings on firearm-related mandatory minimums appeared first on JURIST - News.

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