In Regina v. Suter, 2018 SCC 34, a 6:1 majority of the Supreme Court of Canada allowed the accused’s appeal in part. The Court set aside his 26-month sentence of imprisonment, imposed by the lower sentencing court, for the offence of refusing to provide a breath sample knowing that he caused an accident resulting in a death (Criminal Code, s.255(3.2)),and imposed a sentence of time served of just over ten (10) and a (1/2) half months.
That said, the circumstances of this case are unique as related recently on CBC news. The fatal accident was caused by a non-impaired driving error, and Mr. Suter refused to provide the police with a breath sample because he received bad legal advice. The lawyer he called from the police station expressly told him not to provide a breath sample, and Mr. Suter demurred. Added to this, sometime after the accident, Mr. Suter was attacked by a group of vigilantes who used a set of pruning shears to cut off his thumb. His wife was also attacked in a separate incident. He later pleaded guilty to the s.255(3.2) offence and the other charges were withdrawn.
The sentencing judge imposed a sentence of four (4) months’ imprisonment plus a thirty (30) month driving prohibition. The Judge found that the accident was caused by a non-impaired driving error. He also found that the accused’s refusal to provide a breath sample was the result of bad legal advice and was a mistake of law, which fundamentally changed the accused’s moral culpability. In addition, he noted several other mitigating factors, and also took into account the violent vigilante actions against the accused. However, the Court of Appeal, the Court of Appeal disagreed with this sentence. The Appeal court increased the custodial portion of the sentence to twenty-six (26) months. The court found that: the deficient legal advice did not constitute a mistake of law and it could not be used to mitigate the accused’s sentence; the sentencing judge failed to consider, as an aggravating factor, that the accused chose to drive while distracted in the context of his health and pre-existing alcohol problems; and the sentencing judge erred by taking the vigilante violence into account.
The majority of the Supreme Court held that both the sentencing judge and the Court of Appeal committed errors in principle that resulted in the imposition of unfit sentences. The majority held as follows:
The Court of Appeal erred by effectively sentencing the accused for the uncharged offence of careless driving or dangerous driving causing death. A further error was committed by the Court of Appeal in failing to consider the vigilante violence suffered by the accused. The majority stated that vigilante violence against an offender for his or her role in the commission of an offence is a collateral consequence that should be considered — to a limited extent — when crafting an appropriate sentence.
What is more, the sentencing judge erred in finding that the accused was acting under a mistake of law when he refused to provide the police with a breath sample and that this factor fundamentally changed the accused’s moral culpability. He also erred in giving undue weight to the accused’s non-impairment as a mitigating factor.
Taking into account the attenuating factors in the case, the majority of the Supreme Court of Canada concluded that a sentence of 15 to 18 months’ imprisonment would have been a fit sentence at the time of sentencing. The majority held, however, that in the circumstances of this case – the accused had already served just over 10 and a half months of his custodial sentence and had spent almost nine months waiting for the court’s decision – it would not be in the interests of justice to re-incarcerate the accused.
The final dissenting opinion came from Justice Gascon. His decision was predicated on principles of deference towards the sentencing judge. Justice Gascon would have set aside the 26-month sentence of imprisonment imposed by the Court of Appeal and restored the four-month sentence imposed by the sentencing judge. Gascon J. held that there was no legal basis to justify appellate intervention with the initial sentence in the case.