B.C. judge strikes down mandatory minimum sentence for sexual interference

B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gary Weatherill calls jail time a "grossly disproportionate" punishment for a mentally disabled man convicted of sexual interference involving two teenage girls.

Justice Gary Weatherill says jail time for mentally disabled man a 'grossly disproportionate' punishment

A B.C. Supreme Court judge has struck down the mandatory minimum sentence for sexual interference. (David Horemans/CBC)

A B.C. judge has struck down a mandatory minimum sentence, calling it a "grossly disproportionate" punishment for a mentally disabled man convicted of a child sex crime.

Dylan William Scofield, 26, of Vernon, B.C., pleaded guilty in 2015 to two counts of sexual interference, a crime that carries a mandatory minimum sentence of one year behind bars.

But in a decision last month, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Gary Weatherill described that sentence as "cruel and unusual punishment."

On Friday, the judge ruled that the infringement on Scofield's charter rights was not justified in a free and democratic society.

"Due to the exceptional circumstances of this case, including that Mr. Scofield was a first-time offender who suffers from significant cognitive deficits, the fit and proper sentence should be a six-month conditional sentence," Weatherill wrote in his decision.

B.C. Justice Gary Weatherill said jail time would be a 'grossly disproportionate' punishment for a mentally disabled man. (CBC)

"While Parliament's intention — to sanction all sexual offences against children with a term of imprisonment — seems clear, there are a number of potential exceptions or safeguards that could have been included in the section," Weatherill wrote.

Scofield was 22 at the time of the offences against two 15-year-old girls, who he had met online in 2013.

The court heard that Scofield has an IQ of 59 — defined as "extremely low" — and that cognitive testing placed his intellectual function in the extremely low to borderline range.

He did not have a criminal record before abusing the two girls and has not committed any crimes since he was released on bail following his arrest. A psychologist testified that Scofield is not generally inclined to pursue underage girls.

'Your decisions in life can have repercussions'

As part of his sentence, Scofield will have to submit a DNA sample, and his name will be added to the sex offender registry.

Weatherill acknowledged that a conditional sentence might not seem appropriate to everyone, but said the law required him to balance several different factors.

"Mr. Scofield, I hope you think long and hard about your actions and the harm you have caused to L.N., M.L. [the victims], their families, those closest to them, and the impacts on your community. Your decisions in life can have repercussions and reverberations that you may not feel but can profoundly affect others," Weatherill wrote.

Crown prosecutors are currently reviewing the sentencing decision to determine if they should appeal, according to B.C. Prosecution Service spokesperson Dan McLaughlin.

Mandatory minimums challenged

The judge's decision in Scofield's case should not come as a surprise, according to Yvon Dandurand, a criminology professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.

It follows rulings from the Supreme Court of Canada that have overturned mandatory minimums on some drug trafficking and firearms offences, as well as similar decisions in the lower courts.

The Supreme Court of Canada has overturned mandatory minimums on some drug trafficking and firearms offences, and similar decisions have been made by lower courts. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

But he said Scofield's case also shows how necessary it is for Ottawa to reform the mandatory minimums introduced by the previous Conservative government as part of a 2012 omnibus crime bill.

"This keeps coming up. It occupies the time of the courts, it costs us all money, so we need to fix that problem as early as possible," Dandurand said.

The federal government has signalled that reforms are on the way, and civil servants have been monitoring constitutional challenges to the sentencing regimes.

There are a few options for how to approach the problem, according to Dandurand. That includes wiping out some or all of the mandatory minimums, reducing the sentence lengths or creating exemptions in the law that would allow judges to exercise their discretion in exceptional cases.

Two years ago, Dandurand prepared a report for the Justice Department that surveyed how countries like the U.S., New Zealand and South Africa have created exemptions to their mandatory minimums.

"Sometimes, we've heard of that as a 'safety valve,'" he said. "Our laws in Canada have taken away that judicial discretion, so that is probably one of the easiest ways to move forward."

Justice Department officials did not respond to emails Tuesday requesting an update on the reform process.

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the judge in the case as Justice Gordon Weatherill. In fact, the judge was Justice Gary Weatherill.
    Mar 21, 2018 9:15 AM PT