Ontario’s top court to issue landmark ruling on mandatory minimum sentences

TORONTO – Ontario’s highest court is set to issue a landmark ruling today on mandatory minimum sentences for gun crimes.

The Court of Appeal for Ontario heard six appeals together in February because each involved a constitutional challenge to a mandatory minimum sentence for various firearm offences.

The arguments focused on the three-year mandatory minimum sentence for possessing a loaded prohibited gun — a law enacted in 2008 as part of the federal Conservatives’ omnibus crime bill.

The mandatory minimums were struck down in one case and upheld in the rest, so ruling on all of them at the same time gives the court the opportunity to send a uniform message.

But no matter which way the Appeal Court rules it’s likely the cases will go to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The case in which the mandatory minimum sentence was struck down is that of Leroy Smickle, who was in his cousin’s apartment posing with a loaded handgun for Facebook pictures when the police, looking for his cousin, burst in.

The Crown is taking issue with Judge Anne Molloy’s findings of fact and her characterization of Smickle’s behaviour as “adolescent preening.”

He was 27 years old and his lawyer conceded it was “colossally stupid.”

Several organizations intervened in the cases. The African Canadian Legal Clinic argued that the law will have a “grave impact” on the black community.

Longer sentences will perpetuate the disadvantages people in the community already face, the clinic’s lawyer argued.

Federal government lawyers argued in support of the law, raising a spate of gun violence in 2005, which first prompted Ottawa to propose the stiffer penalties.

It was dubbed “the year of the gun,” but no gun death galvanized politicians as much as the death of 15-year-old Jane Creba. The teen was in a crowd teeming with downtown Toronto shoppers on Boxing Day when she was hit with a bullet as a gunfight suddenly broke out between two rival groups.

“Parliament stiffened the penalty so that people…know they have a choice to exercise and that choice is not to possess a loaded handgun in a public place,” Crown attorney Riun Shandler said in court in February. “Nothing good can come of possession of a loaded illegal gun.”

Parliament is entitled to deference in how it tries to enhance public safety, the government argued.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.