A few months ago while listening to CBC Radio, I heard about the controversial case of a man being tried in Alberta for habitually drunk driving.
The man, Raymond Yellowknee, had already been convicted of drunk driving three times, when in 2006 he decided to drink and get behind the wheel yet again.
According to police, Yellowknee had a blood alcohol level of 0.22 (about three times the legal limit), and was driving a stolen pickup truck. Police pursued the vehicle, but Yellowknee refused to stop and instead provoked a high speed chase.
Just minutes later, Yellowknee lost control of the truck and crossed the center divider. He collided head-on with a passing car.
Inside the car were a mother, who was nearly finished her training to become a teacher, and her three young daughters. All were killed.
I became interested in the case when the radio broadcast reported that the Crown would be seeking a dangerous offender designation for Yellowknee under s. 753 of the Criminal Code. The designation allows the convicted offender to be sentenced to an indeterminate prison term.
The dangerous offender provisions are usually reserved for the most serious violent offenders that a court believes cannot be rehabilitated. This would have been the first time that the designation would be used for a habitual drunk driver.
A judge would have to acknowledge that drinking and driving is a serious personal injury offence: one which carries a sentence of ten years or more, and involves “conduct endangering or likely to endanger the life or safety of another person or inflicting or likely to inflict severe psychological damage on another person” (CC s. 752).
The Canadian Press reports that yesterday judge Ernie Walter of the Alberta Provincial Court decided not to name Yellowknee a dangerous offender. I should point out that Yellowknee, 35, had by this point:
… amassed a total of 71 offences and has been out of jail for only one year since he was 18.
Instead, judge Walter felt (for whatever reason) that there was a chance for rehabilitation. The court sentenced Yellowknee to 20 years (less time already served) under the “long-term offender” provision.
Section 753.1 of the Criminal Code defines a long-term offender as one posing a substantial risk of re-offending but also one where “there is a reasonable possibility of eventual control of the risk in the community.”
Robert Solomon, Professor of Law at the University of Western Ontario, provided us with his opinion of yesterday’s decision:
The Crown had sought a dangerous offender designation, which carries an indeterminate sentence and lifetime parole. Instead, the judge held Mr.Yellowknee to be a long-term offender, which means that he will be supervised in the community for 10 years after his release from prison. Yellowknee was sentenced to 20.5 years imprisonment reduced to 16 years to reflect his pre-trial detention. In my view, several elements of the Yellowknee decision are gratifying. First, the judge clearly stated that Mr. Yellowknee’s long history of impaired driving offences, coupled with his horrific conduct on the day in question, met the criteria for being designated a dangerous offender. Although it is long overdue, this is the first case in which a Canadian court has acknowledged that repeat impaired driving offenders who pose ongoing risks can justifiably be labelled dangerous offenders. Second, Mr.Yellowknee’s long-term offender designation and lengthy sentence will protect the public for almost as long as a dangerous offender designation.
Without reading the decision [it seems to be unreported as yet], it is difficult to understand why the judge exercised his discretion not to label Mr. Yellowknee a dangerous offender. The facts are as close to a worst case scenario as one can imagine and a dangerous offender designation was clearly justified. However, the Supreme Court of Canada has previously indicated that the dangerous offender designation should not be used if a less onerous sentence would adequately protect the public. Perhaps the judge was concerned that a decision to label Mr. Yellowknee a dangerous offender would be overturned on appeal. Clearly, finding Mr. Yellowknee to be a long-term offender is less controversial than finding him to be a dangerous offender. Moreover, defence counsel had indicated that they would accept a long-term offender designation. The choice between the designations would not have made a great difference in this case, given the 16 year prison sentence.
Regardless of the ultimate designation handed down for Mr. Yellowknee, yesterday’s decision should set a precedent (admittedly, non-binding) for dealing with habitual drunk drivers and the substantial risk of harm that they pose to the community.