FROM THE STREETS TO THE COURTROOM
People who drive their vehicles in a manner that endangers lives take a big risk; their actions might cause their own or someone else’s death and they may also be charged with committing a criminal offence. If convicted, they are subject to the penalties set out in the Criminal Code for the offense, which can include a jail sentence or a monetary fine and/or the suspension or loss of a driver’s license. The goals of sentencing are to punish the behaviour, protect the public from people who have broken the law, and to deter others from committing similar acts. Occasionally, the public reacts strongly to the sentences imposed on people convicted of criminal acts, especially when the activity (such as dangerous driving) caused the death of an innocent person. Recent news stories have generated considerable public debate over the appropriateness of the sentences handed down by the courts in cases of dangerous driving.
The following cases illustrate the factors judges consider when sentencing a person convicted of a driving-related offence. In January 2003, the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the sentence of a woman who was convicted of impaired driving causing death. In this case, the woman entered a guilty plea to the charge and was sentenced to three years imprisonment. The impaired driving resulted in the death of a young woman who was walking home from work. About a month later, two young drivers were each convicted of criminal negligence causing death. The young men were involved in a street race, driving separate vehicles, when one of the vehicles lost control and struck and killed a pedestrian on the sidewalk. The trial judge sentenced each of the men to a conditional sentence for a term of two years less one day, followed by probation for a term of three years. The sentences in the two cases were quite different and it was this disparity that caught the attention of the media and the public.
The following are ideas and questions related to the cases around which to centre classroom discussion. Students can examine both the reasons for judgment and the media reports, make note of the differences in function and purpose between the media reports in the paper and the judges who hear the facts, review the evidence and apply the law, giving reasons for their decision. Students will compare a reported case to the media’s report of a case, which provides important information to the general public, but often focuses on the more sensational aspects of the case and the judge’s decision.
- Learn how to look up court reports on the Internet
- Identify important sections of a case report
- Read and critically evaluate media reports of a case
- Note the difference in purpose and tone between media reports and case reports
- Recognize the importance of reading the case report before forming an opinion of a case
THE QUEEN V. KHOSA and BHALRU
The judgment in this case was released on February 3, 2003. The Vancouver Sun covered the story in a number of articles over the next two weeks. Reactions from the public, politicians and representatives of the judiciary were published. Students should be assigned to search for, read and summarize at least one of the newspaper articles published during the first three weeks of February 2003.
After students have had an opportunity to discuss their findings in small groups, they should read the official reasons for judgment in the case and compare the portrayal of the facts, the tone and the goals of the two reports. For the full case report, go to www.courts.gov.bc.caand search for R. v. Khosa and Bhalru.
Students may be asked to complete the following tasks in preparation for critical thinking and classroom discussion:
- Summarize the events leading to the fatal accident.
- Compare and contrast how the media reports and case reports present information about street racing as a social problem.
- Determine what conditional sentencing means and what purposes it serves.
In this decision the judge gives considerable attention to the rules set out in the Criminal Code regarding conditional sentences and that, through legislating conditional sentences, the government of Canada has advocated to judges to apply a conditional sentence whenever appropriate. The judge also comments on a number of precedent cases and considers the characters of the accused and the effect a jail sentence might have on them. Have students consider the following questions about how laws are being applied in this case.
- Judges are bound to follow applicable prior cases. The judge reviews several similar cases in her report. What are some of the reasons she gives for not applying the same sentence?
- The judge lists a number of reasons why she thinks a conditional sentence should be imposed in this case, what are they?
- What do you think would be the most effective way to discourage young people from street racing?
- Our legal system has established the principle that a judge should function independently of public or political pressure. Why is it important to maintain this principle?
News of the other case was reported during the week following the decision of the street racing case discussed above, even though the decision had been reached by the British Columbia Court of Appeal during the previous month. The Court of Appeal’s judgment upheld the sentence imposed on a woman convicted of impaired driving causing death after entering a guilty plea to the charge. At the sentencing, the judge determined that this was not a case where a conditional sentence should be imposed. The sentencing judge determined that the woman would serve three years in prison for the impaired driving offense that caused the death of a 17 year-old girl. In this case, the Court of Appeal was asked to review the sentence to determine if it was justified.
Have students read the Court of Appeal report found at at http://www.courts.gov.bc.ca/jdb-txt/ca/03/00/2003BCCA0015.htm. Prepare a summary of the facts and history of the case and discuss the following questions.
- How is this case different than the street racing case in terms of the state of mind of the accused?
- What factors did the judge use to determine the sentence?
- What does the Court of Appeal say about the capacity of the sentencing judge to determine the facts and assess the social circumstances surrounding the incident?
- Do you think a period of incarceration will accomplish the goals of the justice system to denounce and deter the kind of behaviour that occurred here?
- How important is it to have decisions in similar cases consistent?
- Do you think the character of the accused should be a factor in sentencing?
By the end of this discussion students will learn the many factors a judge must take into consideration when rendering a sentence in a particular case. The judge has access to information about the case and knowledge of the law that may not be available to news reporters. News reports seldom tell the whole story and it would be unwise to base an opinion on the outcome of a case from merely reading or hearing media reports. Judges are required to undertake a detailed reporting process and that report is the most credible source of information on a case. Case reports are now readily available on the Internet and students should be encouraged to refer to them when they have questions raised by a report about a trial or judgment in the media.