Defer or Deter: Sentencing Police Officers for Criminal Negligence Causing Bodily Harm

The Offence

On the evening of November 20, 2015, a group of five partygoers were leaving a local bar in Thompson, Manitoba after celebrating Ms. Flett’s birthday.  The Jeep they were in was flagged for a traffic stop by the accused, Cst. Letkeman, who suspected that the driver was impaired.

The driver of the Jeep, Mr. Campbell, initially complied with the traffic stop, but took off before Cst. Letkeman could exit his cruiser, despite the pleas of his passengers.

A slow speed pursuit ensued. As the Jeep decelerated at an intersection, the accused attempted to immobilize the vehicle using a PIT maneuver. He was aware the Jeep was full of passengers. The force of the cruiser caused the Jeep to spin around, significantly damaging the police vehicle, but the Jeep – and the pursuit – continued on.

As seven other officers were on duty, backup support was close. The accused followed the Jeep as it veered off the main road onto an uneven, snow-covered ATV trail and quickly lost control. As the Jeep came to a stop, the accused drove into its passenger side, attempting to disable it. The collision caused the Jeep to spin, coming to rest on the opposite side of the trail.

The accused then approached the Jeep on foot with his firearm drawn. Disastrously, Mr. Campbell put the Jeep in forward gear and drove towards the accused. Fearing for his life, the accused shot into the Jeep as it came towards him. Mr. Campbell was killed, his hands still on the steering wheel. Ms. Flett, having already sustained a fractured pelvis and serious neck injuries as a result of the collisions, was wounded from a bullet fragment to her head.

The Trial

Cst. Letkeman was charged with six Criminal Code offences – three in respect of the shootings, as well as dangerous driving, dangerous driving causing bodily harm, and criminal negligence causing bodily harm.

In a decision indexed as 2019 MBQB 124, Cst. Letkeman was found guilty of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, as “intentionally striking the Jeep with the police car amounted to a marked and substantial departure from the standard of a reasonable person in all the circumstances, including his role as a police officer, which showed a wanton and reckless disregard for the safety of others. Such a use of force was not justified by s. 25(1); it was not proportional, necessary or reasonable.”

The other driving offenses were stayed based on the rule against being convicted twice for the same action – the Kienapple principle – as the court found that the pursuit was “one continuous, fluid event punctuated by two intentional crashes of the same Jeep for the same reasons”.

The accused was acquitted in respect of the charges related to the shooting, Justice Martin having found that it was a “tragic but proportionate response to a real and immediate threat to the officer’s life”.

The Sentencing Hearing

A sentence imposed on any person must be tailored to the specific circumstances of the offence, while being mindful of the principles of sentencing. In sentencing police officers, the guiding fundamental purposes from section 718 of the Criminal Code are denunciation and general deterrence (at para 18).

At the sentencing hearing, indexed as 2020 MBQB 12, over 120 letters of support from the accused’s friends, neighbours, members of his church and work colleagues were tendered on Cst. Letkeman’s behalf. Justice Martin considered how “[Cst. Lekeman’s] remorse and regret are real, and deep” and the psychological effects of the offence on the constable.

Ultimately, Justice Martin sentenced Cst. Letkeman to:

  • a three-year period of probation;
  • 240 hours of community work within 18 months, but not at his church;
  • a fine of $10,000 to be paid within three years; and
  • a 12-month driving prohibition.

In imposing a non-custodial sentence, Justice Martin emphasized how the shooting and its consequences must not creep into the decision but also noted how “the law is not at that state where the blunt harshness of a jail sentence is the only proportionate disposition for a criminal negligence causing bodily harm or death case” (at para 52).

Justice Martin concluded that neither three years in jail nor a simple sentence was fit, but acknowledged that he was “torn”, stating “on the one hand a short period of incarceration is in the range of a fit sentence, but so too is a non-jail sanction” (at para 53).

The Appeal

In R v. Letkeman, 2021 MBCA 68, the Crown appealed from the sentence imposed by Justice Martin on the grounds that he erred by mischaracterizing the accused’s moral blameworthiness, overemphasizing his personal circumstances notwithstanding the focus on deterrence and denunciation required in sentencing for this offence, and imposing a sentence that was unfit.

Simonsen J.A., writing for the majority in the Manitoba Court of Appeal, allowed the appeal in part. The majority found that Justice Martin “crafted…a largely rehabilitative sentence that focused on the circumstances of the accused. A jail sentence may have had little benefit or utility to the accused, in terms of his rehabilitation or specific deterrence from committing other crimes.  But it would have had an important purpose in deterring other police officers from overreaching the bounds of their authority, and venturing into criminal conduct—and in loudly denouncing such conduct” (at para 56).

In determining a fit sentence for Cst. Letkeman, the Court stated that a “custodial sentence is required in order to address the accused’s misconduct, which seriously undermines the bond that should exist between the public and the police” (at para 72). In all the circumstances, the majority determined that a ten-month term of imprisonment would be appropriate but reduced it to three months given that Cst. Letkeman had already paid the fine and performed 290 hours of community service.

In a sharply worded dissent, Burnett J.A. wrote: “the sentence imposed by the trial judge must be incomprehensible to Ms. Flett, to members of her community and to the public generally in Manitoba” (at para 147), and that an appropriate sentence would be 36 months’ incarceration, reduced by six months for the community service performed by the accused.

Leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was filed by the Crown on July 15, 2021.

The Supreme Court of Canada’s mandate is to deal with issues of law which are of public importance, or of such a nature or significance as to a warrant decision by the Court.

On March 3, 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed the Crown’s leave to appeal. The principles applied for sentencing police officers for criminal negligence causing bodily harm stand – for now.

For more information, please contact David McKnight or Naomi Krueger.

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