Criminal Chameleons

“Our criminal law has its chameleons. Take hybrid offences, for example. Sometimes, indictable. Other times, summary conviction. But capable of change.” [@para 1] In DME although the Crown was capable of changing its election, everyone forgot that one change often necessitates another, in this case the level of court. 

DME was charged with sexual assault and sexual exploitation.  While those charges were before the courts DME was further charged with breaching the undertaking he had been released on. Shortly after he was charged once more, this time with breaching the recognizance he had been released on following the second set of charges.  The Crown elected to proceed by indictment on all three informations and DME elected to have a trial by judge and jury. More than two after the first information was sworn, DME was committed to stand trial.

On the day of trial, following a judicial pre-trial, the Crown re-elected to proceed summarily and DME entered pleas of guilt. The Superior Court judge found DME guilty and sentenced him to a term of imprisonment and a period of probation. 

DME appealed: 2014 ONCA 496 arguing that the proceedings which followed the Crown’s re-election were vitiated by jurisdictional error. First, DME submitted that the Crown was not entitled to re-elect as they did and second, that the Superior Court of Justice had no jurisdiction to take the guilty pleas.

Dealing first with the Crown re-election to proceed by summary conviction Watt JA writing for a unanimous court , highlighted four points rejecting this ground of appeal:

First, the right to elect mode of proceeding for hybrid offences is that of the Crown.
Second, the common law equally permits the Crown, having once elected one mode of proceeding in connection with a hybrid offence, to re-elect later the other mode of proceeding. In some instances consent of the accused and approval of the presiding judge may be required.
Third, unlike an accused's right to elect or re-elect mode of trial, the Crown's right to elect or re-elect mode of proceeding need not be made at any specific place or before any particular judicial officer. Provided any consent and approval requirements are satisfied, it is of no jurisdictional moment where re-election is made.
Finally, that the re-election to proceed by summary conviction took place more than six months after the subject-matter of the proceedings arose is of no jurisdictional significance. The appellant, who was represented by counsel throughout, not only agreed with the change in the mode of proceeding, but also benefited substantially from it. Counsel for the appellant could advocate for a conditional sentence of imprisonment when Crown counsel proceeded summarily, a disposition statutorily unavailable to him when Crown counsel proceeded by indictment. And the maximum punishment to which the appellant would be subject on summary conviction was a term of imprisonment for 18 months rather than for ten years if the Crown proceeded by indictment. It may also be open to question whether re-election of mode of proceeding amounts to institution of proceedings within s. 786(2) of the Criminal Code: Linton, at pp. 536-537. [@paras 42-45]

DME’s second ground of appeal had more traction. Notwithstanding the fact that no one “involved in the case – Crown, defence or judge – query, let alone contest, the jurisdiction of the Superior Court of Justice to proceed as the prosecution played out.” [@para 49] the Court of Appeal held that the “presiding judge had no authority to arraign the appellant, to take his plea of guilty, or to impose what he considered to be a fit sentence.” [@para 67].

Watt JA explained as follows:

First, section 798 of the Criminal Code requires that summary conviction proceedings be adjudicated by a summary conviction court.  A summary conviction court is defined in section 785 of the Code.

Second, the Superior Court is the appellate court for summary conviction offences. “It would be somewhat undesirable to have judges of the same court try and review trials for error.” [@para 69]

Third, no other criminal code sections applied to give the Superior Court jurisdiction in the circumstances of this case.

Fourth, although there are provisions which allow a Superior Court judge to exercise jurisdiction as a justice of the peace and “as a matter of statutory construction a justice of the peace falls within the definition of a summary conviction court”, none of the parties asked the presiding judge to do so. [@para 74]

Fifth, prior decisions of the Court of Appeal make it clear that “superior court of criminal jurisdiction has no authority to try summary conviction offences.” [@para 75]

The Court remitted the matter to the Ontario Court of Justice for pleas of guilt (which the appellant made clear he intended to enter) and sentence.