Minimum sentences in Canada (updated)

July 25, 2011

Check the update at the end of this article.

John Snobelen, currently a Toronto Sun columnist, had an earlier run as a provincial politician, serving Mike Harris as his minister of education and minister of natural resources.  Always a colourful figure, Snobelen is best remembered for a speech to directors of education in which he stated, “You can’t manage change.  We’re going to bankrupt the system.  We’re going to create a crisis.”  He certainly did that, entering our memory as the worst minister of education in Ontario history.  As minister of natural resources he annoyed Harris supporters by suddenly cancelling the spring bear hunt, a major source of revenue to tourist operators in Northern Ontario.  Dropped from cabinet by Ernie Eves in 2002, he disappeared to a ranch in Oklahoma until his eventual resignation from the Ontario Legislature in 2003.

Our tale begins in January of 2007 when the Toronto Star broke the story that John Snobelen had been arrested and charged after police executed a search warrant and seized an illegal .22 Colt semi-automatic pistol  from its place of concealment in an air duct in the bathroom of Snobelen’s farm house near Milton.

It seems the gun and ammunition had been hidden there by Snobelen’s estranged wife for reasons unclear in the agreed-upon statement of facts in court testimony.  I’ll leave it to the reader to fill in the gaps as to why a wife would first place a gun out of the reach of her husband and later direct police to the contraband weapon.

The handgun had been transported into the country with Snobelen’s personal effects when he moved back to the Milton area from Oklahoma.  He admitted in his plea that he had unpacked the gun and failed to register or dispose of it.

This seemed to lay this public figure wide open to the minimum sentences applicable to gun crimes once the Colt was discovered by police, for on CTV on January 6th, 2006 Stephen Harper said he would introduce a minimum sentence of five years for possession of a loaded restricted or prohibited weapon.  “Not only will sentences be tougher, we will make sure the criminals serve those sentences,” said Harper.

Perhaps the Harper Government hadn’t yet had time to implement its pet minimum sentencing rule, for a year later John Snobelen faced the justice system in a sentencing hearing.  The outcome had taken seventeen months, but in May of 2007, notwithstanding the defendant’s guilty plea, Justice Stephen Brown noted that Snobelen had never used the weapon and that it had been discovered during ongoing marital problems.  Brown described Snobelen’s failure to dispose of the firearm as a foolish mistake and a serious error in judgement, but sent him on his way with an absolute discharge.

This seems a not-unreasonable outcome to the story.

But then last week Gary Bellett of the Vancouver Sun reported that Texan Danny Cross (64), Californian Hugh Barr (70) and their wives were on their way to Alaska to celebrate Cross’s wedding anniversary when they were stopped at a border crossing near Vancouver on July 11.

They declared they had no firearms aboard their Winnebego, but Border Services personnel located a total of five loaded pistols and promptly arrested the two husbands.  The retired brothers-in-law then spent five days with the general population in jail while their wives struggled to raise the $50,000 bail for each prisoner.

These retirees, like Snobelen, had no previous criminal record.  They come from a gun-toting culture where a man literally feels naked without his guns.  But as soon as they crossed the border and declared that they had no firearms with them, they became targets for Stephen Harper’s minimum sentence program, and they lack Snobelen’s contacts and resources as a wealthy man and former cabinet minister.  According to Canadian law today, these men must be incarcerated for a minimum of three years.

I’ve been a long gun owner all my life but have no use for handguns.  Still I feel there’s something fundamentally stupid about treating these men as hardened criminals.  Why not confiscate the guns and possibly the motor home, give the owners a stiff fine and send them home?

Let’s try another example of a minimum sentence.  Say your kid has six marijuana plants growing somewhere and is arrested and charged.  The minimum sentencing provision kicks in and he or she faces three years of prison.  Last spring I challenged M.P. Gord Brown on this and he responded, “Six plants is a lot of marijuana.”

My old economics professor always insisted that when you draw a line across the graph, strange distortions occur in a free market.  The minimum sentence rule no doubt sounds great to Conservative supporters in a headline, whether Harper says three years or five as the minimum punishment for a particular crime.  But it makes for lousy justice and I fear we will feel its effects over the next few years.

Update: The Ottawa Citizen, Dec. 8, 2011

U.S. seniors fined for sneaking guns across border

Men were carrying small arsenal for protection, lawyer says

By Gerry Bellett, Postmedia News December 8, 2011

Two pistolpacking American seniors were fined $10,000 each on Wednesday after being found with a small arsenal of undeclared firearms by Canada Border Services Agency officers who searched their motor home July 11.

The men Danny Cross, 64, of Texas and his brother-in-law Hugh Barr, 70, had told guards at the Aldergrove, B.C., border crossing that they had no weapons in their motor home but a search turned up a shotgun, a derringer-type pistol, a cowboy-style six gun, and three semi-automatic pistols – all except the shotgun were loaded.

At the time Cross and Barr – accompanied by their wives – were on their way to Alaska to celebrate Cross’s wedding anniversary but instead ended up in jail for five days until a $50,000 bail for each was raised.

Both pleaded guilty in Surrey, B.C., provincial court to possession of loaded, prohibited weapons.

Crown counsel Leanne Jomori told Judge James Bahen their actions warranted between 60 to 90 days in jail as they had deliberately lied to border guards.

She said the pair were cavalier in their attitude to Canada’s restrictive gun laws and didn’t take them seriously.

Their lawyer Joel Whysall said a jail sentence was inappropriate given they had spent five days in jail and asked for a fine to be imposed as neither had a criminal record and were exemplary citizens in their own country.

He said the men were carrying the guns for protection.

When asked by the judge if they had anything to say, Barr, who spoke for them both, said they wanted to “apologize to the people of Canada for what we have done.”

“We are embarrassed and humiliated that we ignored the handgun laws of Canada. We had no intention of doing harm,” said Barr.

Outside the courtroom, when asked why they were carrying so many guns, Barr said he’d heard that northern Canada was wild and dangerous – “a bit like it was in the old covered wagon days.”

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