Threats of Violence, Personal Injury Offences, and Dangerous Offender Applications: R v Steele
In R v Steele, 2014 SCC 61 [Steele], the Supreme Court of Canada (“SCC”) grappled with the issue of whether the mere threat of violence is enough to satisfy the legal criteria of a Serious Personal Injury Offence (“SPIO”), which is a pre-condition for the Crown to pursue a dangerous offender application.
One of the most serious criminal consequences one can face in Canada is being entered into the dangerous and long-term offender system. Those that are deemed to pose an ongoing threat to the public can face indeterminate detention and long-term supervision.
Entry into the system requires that two conditions be satisfied. First, the offender must have been convicted of an SPIO as defined in section 752 of the Criminal Code, RSC 1985, c C-46 [Code]. Second, there must be reasonable grounds to believe that the offender might be found to be a dangerous offender under section 753 of the Code or a long-term offender pursuant to section 753.1. The SPIO requirement, therefore, plays an important gatekeeper role.
Section 752(a)(i) of the Code states that an SPIO is an indictable offence, other than high treason, first degree murder, or second degree murder, that involves the use or attempted use of violence against another person.
The facts of this case are relatively simple and were not disputed. Steele entered a drugstore with his face hidden by a hoodie. He then approached the counter and told the cashiers to give him the money, informing them that he had a gun. The robbery took roughly one minute and ten seconds from start to finish.
There was no evidence that Steele possessed a weapon while inside or outside of the store and the cashiers were not injured. Steele was convicted of robbery, disguise with intent, and failure to comply with a probation order. After being convicted, the Crown applied to the court to have Steele remanded for SPIO assessment.
At trial, Justice McKelvey denied the Crown’s application, and this decision was upheld on appeal. Justice McKelvey’s reasoning was that the crime Steele had committed did not meet the definition set out in section 752(a)(i) of the Code, which states that an SPIO requires the use or attempted use of violence against another person.
Justice McKelvey stated that, while Steele had used threats of violence in committing the offence, he had not actually “endangered or been likely to endanger the lives or safety of the cashiers” or cause severe psychological damage (R v Steele, 2011 MBQB 181, para 25). Acknowledging that nobody had been injured, the trial judge found that the implied threat of violence fell short of the threshold for an SPIO set out in 752(a)(i).
In upholding the trial judge’s decision, the Manitoba Court of Appeal pointed out that the definition of robbery in section 343(a) of the Code mentions the use of violence and threats of violence, while the definition of an SPIO refers to the use of violence or the attempted use of violence. The implication is that the difference in language signals that not all robberies meet the use or attempted use of violence threshold to be considered an SPIO.
The issue at the SCC was whether a robbery committed through the use of threats of violence constitutes an SPIO. Justice Wagner allowed the Crown’s appeal, holding that threats of violence, even absent physical force, indeed satisfy the SPIO requirement of the use or attempted use of violence.
Justice Wagner started by noting that the word “violence” in section 752(a)(i) is unqualified, meaning that any level of violence is sufficient to meet the threshold. An SPIO does not, therefore, need to consider the seriousness of the violent act in question. Any indictable offence punishable by imprisonment of ten years or more involving the use or attempted use of violence is considered an SPIO.
The SCC adopted the position that threats are themselves violent, stating that “threats of violence are inherently violent, not simply a means of communicating future violence” (Steele, para 47). Threats of violence are tools of intimidation used to achieve a particular purpose and can themselves be considered to acts of violence if they are meant to be taken seriously.
Justice Wagner held, therefore, that threats of violence to a person in the commission of a robbery meet the use of violence criterion in the definition of an SPIO because a threat itself is a violent act and the offence of robbery is punishable by ten years or more of incarceration. He further held that this approach is consistent with the general understanding that robbery is theft accompanied by an act of violence.
It was argued before the SCC that the absence of an explicit reference to the use of threats in the definition of an SPIO suggests that “violence” and “threats of violence” are distinct from one another. Justice Wagner found this line of reasoning to be overly technical and unconvincing, noting the frequency with which the Code has been amended and the inadvertent variations that occur as a result.
Ultimately, the SCC determined that the trial judge and the Court of Appeal had drawn the line in the wrong place. Requiring courts to distinguish between real threats of violence and remote ones would be unwieldy and would result in tremendous difficulty. The plain meaning and purpose of section 752(a)(i) dictate, therefore, that all threats of violence be treated as violent, regardless of how serious that threat is.
It seems counterintuitive that the interpretation of what constitutes an SPIO, which explicitly contains the term “serious,” would not require an analysis of the actual seriousness of an individual offence. Nonetheless, the decision in Steele has created a lower threshold for the Crown to meet the SPIO criteria and seek dangerous and long-term offender designations, regardless of whether the actual facts of a criminal case warrant such severity.
Although the SPIO criteria serves as a threshold for entry into the dangerous and long-term offender system, Steele invites the possibility of more and potentially undeserving offenders being placed in jeopardy of facing the serious consequences associated with these designations. It is, therefore, concerning that such a significant intrusion on one’s liberty can be pursued without regard to the qualitative circumstances of an individual case.