Canada's Supreme Court gives mixed rulings on gun crime penalties

FILE PHOTO: The Supreme Court building is pictured in Ottawa March 21, 2014. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

TORONTO (Reuters) - Canada's Supreme Court found one mandatory minimum sentence for a firearm offence unconstitutional and upheld two others in a pair of decisions published on Friday.

Two of the three cases at issue used hypothetical scenarios that defence counsel argued could render these mandatory minimums unconstitutional because they would constitute cruel and unusual punishment in certain instances.

Mandatory minimum sentences have come under fire in Canada from advocates and lawyers who say they take discretion from judges and disproportionately penalize Indigenous and Black people who are over-represented behind bars and in Canada's criminal justice system.

Canada has tighter gun laws than the United States but higher rates of gun ownership than some other rich countries. The federal government has been criticized by some gun rights advocates for tightening gun laws, including through a freeze on handgun purchases.

In one case, Jesse Dallas Hills had pleaded guilty to four charges, including recklessly discharging a firearm at a home in 2014 in Lethbridge, Alberta. That charge carried a mandatory minimum sentence of four years.

His counsel argued that in some cases, this mandatory minimum could constitute cruel and unusual punishment. The trial judge agreed; the appeal court did not.

The Hills ruling found this mandatory minimum unconstitutional and also said courts "should consider the effect of a sentence on the particular offender." This is significant, said lawyer Chris Rudnicki, because it will oblige judges to consider whether Black or Indigenous offenders will have a harder time behind bars and perhaps change sentencings with that in mind.

In another case, Ocean Hilbach pleaded guilty to robbery with a prohibited firearm in Edmonton, Alberta, in 2017. The trial judge declared the five-year mandatory minimum penalty unconstitutional and an appeals court upheld that finding.

The Supreme Court found that penalty constitutional, as well as that imposed on Curtis Zwozdesky, who pleaded guilty to robbery with a firearm. His counsel used a hypothetical scenario to argue the four-year mandatory minimum sentence constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

Canada's government repealed more than a dozen mandatory minimum sentences last year and some have been struck down by provincial courts but about 53 criminal offences remain subject to mandatory minimum penalties, according to the justice department.

"Since 2016, the Department of Justice is aware of a total of 174 lower and appellate courts decisions that have found (mandatory minimum penalties) unconstitutional," a spokesperson wrote in an email.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto; Editing by Mark Porter and Matthew Lewis)

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