On December 17th 2015 the Supreme Court of Canada in the decision of R. v. Lacasse sent a warning to ordinarily law abiding citizens who commit impaired driving, by upholding a six and a half year term of imprisonment for the offence of impaired driving causing the death of two people. This warning extends to other ordinarily law abiding citizens who might be thinking about committing so called white collar crimes such as bribery or price fixing, or being willfully blind to the commission of such crimes.  Justice Wagner’s majority decision specifically targets the impact of deterrence on first offenders:

While it is true that the objectives of deterrence and denunciation apply in most cases, they are particularly relevant to offences that might be committed by ordinarily law-abiding people. It is such people, more than chronic offenders, who will be sensitive to harsh sentences. Released at a holiday time when the incidence of impaired driving increases, the Lacasse decision sends an important message to otherwise law abiding people condemning the “scourge” of impaired driving.

 The decision in Lacasse has widespread implications for general sentencing principles on a number of levels.  The Court recognizes that proportionality is a cardinal sentencing principle which trumps parity as a secondary sentencing principle.  This trumping of principles allows for the evolution of sentencing beyond strict ranges as set by prior precedents.

Justice Wagner’s judgment provides a very helpful construction of proportionality into two fundamental competing factors: (1) Seriousness of the crime’s consequences and (2) Moral blameworthiness of the offender:

In such cases, proportionality is the cardinal principle that must guide appellate courts in considering the fitness of a sentence imposed on an offender. The more serious the crime and its consequences, or the greater the offender’s degree of responsibility, the heavier the sentence will be. In other words, the severity of a sentence depends not only on the seriousness of the crime’s consequences, but also on the moral blameworthiness of the offender.

This two pronged approach is amenable to a matrix analysis that reflects the type of risk assessment that is central to compliance in the area of corporate compliance. At the sentencing stage however, the risk matrix is on its head, as there has been a failure of risk management.

The decision in Lacasse is also important with respect to the standard of review of trial level sentencing decisions.  The Court modifies the classic test that an error in principle, the failure to consider a relevant factor or the erroneous consideration of an aggravating or mitigating factor will justify appellate intervention,  The modification is that such errors will only justify intervention  where it appears from the trial judge’s decision that such an error had an impact on the sentence.

 When a sentencing Justice departs from the matrix of the gravity of the offence and  the offender’s degree of responsibility in a way that impacts the sentence, it is appropriate for a reviewing Court to intervene to restore the sentence that is consistent with this matrix.  This may of course result in sentences being adjusted upwards or downward in specific circumstances.

Compliance programs are even more essential now, given the message from the Court that the objectives of deterrence and denunciation are particularly relevant to offences that might be committed by ordinarily law-abiding people.


The judgment in Lacasse recognizes that sentencing remains one of the most delicate stages of the criminal justice process in Canada. Although this task was governed by ss. 718 et seq. of the Criminal Code, R.S.C. 1985, c. C-46, and although the objectives set out in those sections guide the courts and are clearly defined, sentencing nonetheless involves the exercise of a broad discretion by the courts in balancing all the relevant factors in order to meet the objectives being pursued in sentencing.  To that extent, the decision is applicable to other sentencing regimes outside of the federal sphere, such as sentencing under provincial offence legislation.

The courts have historically developed tools to ensure that similar sentences are imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances — the principle of parity of sentences which results in ranges of sentences being established. Justice Wagner observes that the credibility of the criminal justice system in the eyes of the public depends on the fitness of sentences imposed on offenders. A sentence that is unfit, whether because it is too harsh or too lenient, could cause the public to question the credibility of the system in light of its objectives.

The Supreme Court holds on to the objective of rehabilitation as one of the main objectives of Canadian criminal law. Rehabilitation is identified as “one of the fundamental moral values that distinguish Canadian society from the societies of many other nations in the world, and it helps the courts impose sentences that are just and appropriate.”  This is a complex area as it requires insight into why an offence occurred in order to effectively rehabilitate the offender, and there is considerable controversy about the efficacy of a prison term to achieve rehabilitation.

 In the context of offences such as impaired driving causing either bodily harm or death, the Supreme Court confirms that courts from various parts of the country have held that the objectives of deterrence and denunciation must be emphasized in order to convey society’s condemnation.

While it is normal for trial judges to consider sentences other than imprisonment in appropriate cases, in cases where people die as a result of impaired driving, the courts have very few options other than imprisonment.

Justice Wagner sets out the stark reality that  impaired driving offences still cause more deaths than any other offences in Canada. Yet our legislators for some reason resist the most simple pro-active ex ante mechanism to stop impaired driving which would be the mandatory requirement that every new vehicle be equipped with an interlock breathalyzer machine.  The added costs to vehicle cost spread out across society would surely be worth it if lives would be saved, which is a virtual certainty.


Mr. Lacasse pleaded guilty to two counts of alcohol-impaired driving causing death. Lacasse lost control of his vehicle while entering a curve on a country road .  He was speeding, and his ability to drive was impaired by alcohol. Nadia Pruneau, who was celebrating her 18th birthday that night, and Caroline Fortier, aged 17, were in the back seat of the vehicle. They both died instantly. Neither the vehicle’s mechanical condition nor the weather contributed to the accident. Lacasse was entirely responsible for the accident.

Lacasse had been deeply distressed during the weeks and months following the accident and had become suicidal. At the time of the sentencing hearing, he was 20 years old. He did not have a criminal record, although he had been convicted of offences under the Highway Safety Code, including three speeding offences.

The sentencing Judge attached less weight to the fact that Lacasse had pleaded guilty on the ground that he had done so relatively late, long after he was in a position to make decisions about the conduct of his trial. The sentencing Judge also attached less weight to the fact that the Lacasse did not have a criminal record, because in his view, the offence was one that was likely to be committed by people who do not have criminal records.

Furthermore, the sentencing Judge emphasized the particular situation in the Beauce region of Quebec, where approximately one in five cases involves an impaired driving offence. He even posed the question whether driving while impaired is trivialized more there than elsewhere.

For all these reasons, the sentencing Judge sentenced Lacasse, on each count of impaired driving causing death, to six years and six months’ imprisonment minus the period of one month he had spent in pre-trial detention; the two sentences were to be served concurrently.

The Quebec Court of Appeal found that the sentence of six years and five months was excessive because it departed from the principle of proportionality. In the court’s opinion, the trial judge should have given greater consideration to the respondent’s potential for rehabilitation and placed less emphasis on the objective of making an example of an offender.


The Supreme Court has reiterated on many occasions that appellate courts may not intervene lightly in sentence decisions, as trial judges have a broad discretion to impose the sentence they consider appropriate within the limits established by law.   The Court has narrowly defined the types of error in principle that will generally justify intervention:

Put simply, absent an error in principle, failure to consider a relevant factor, or an overemphasis of the appropriate factors, a court of appeal should only intervene to vary a sentence imposed at trial if the sentence is demonstrably unfit.

 An issue which split the Court in Lacasse is the question of whether such errors necessarily require intervention.  Justice Gascon wrote a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice MacLachlin, stating the view that where there is a reviewable error in the trial judge’s reasoning, for example where the judge has characterized an element of the offence as an aggravating factor, it is always open to an appellate court to intervene to assess the fitness of the sentence imposed by the trial judge. In other words, such an error opens the door to an appellate court then affirming that sentence if it considers the sentence to be fit, or imposing the sentence it considers appropriate without having to show deference.

Justice Wagner held that every such error of principle will not necessarily justify appellate intervention regardless of its impact on the trial judge’s reasoning. Intervention is only appropriate if the error would have had an impact on the sentence:

In my view, an error in principle, the failure to consider a relevant factor or the erroneous consideration of an aggravating or mitigating factor will justify appellate intervention only where it appears from the trial judge’s decision that such an error had an impact on the sentence.

In the Lacasse case, both the majority and minority of the Court were of the opinion that the sentencing  Judge erred in identifying  the fact that Lacasse was intoxicated as an aggravating factor, as intoxication was a constituent element of the offence itself and accordingly had a higher sentencing range by definition.  However, Justice Wagner held that this is a non-determinative error that did not unduly affect the sentence, given that the sentencing Judge  identified other aggravating factors and it was apparent that the sentencing Judge attached no real weight to this factor.

Ultimately it was the opinion of the Supreme Courr that the sentence of six years and six months’ imprisonment, although severe, falls within the overall range of sentences normally imposed in Quebec and elsewhere in the country and is not demonstrably unfit.

 Justice Wagner repeats the reminder given by the Supreme Court about showing deference to a trial judge’s exercise of discretion because first, the trial judge has the advantage of having observed the witnesses in the course of the trial and having heard the parties’ sentencing submissions. While this is obviously a fact, the witnesses may have testified only on liability issues only and not on issues relevant to sentencing and this should be borne in mind. Moreover, a sentencing Judge may consider hearsay evidence where found to be credible and trustworthy.

 I have argued previously that a trial Judge has little advantage over an appellate court in assessing hearsay evidence for the simple reason that the declarant of the hearsay evidence is not available for the trial Judge to see or evaluate under the spotlight of cross-examination. Rather, the decision is made on a principled basis which an appellate court is capable of doing well. To the extent that a sentencing Judge relies on hearsay evidence in making sentencing decisions, it is respectfully submitted that the level of deference ought to be adjusted accordingly.

Second, Justice Wager repeats the reminder that the sentencing judge is usually familiar with the circumstances in the district where he or she sits and therefore with the particular needs of the community in which the crime was committed. This is relevant to the consideration of local circumstances considered below. Finally, Justice Wagner points out that the appropriate use of judicial resources is a consideration that must never be overlooked.

Part 2: click here

Part 3: click here

Source: Global Compliance News


Last updated on: 2016-02-01 | Link to this post