The Attorney General and the Cyclist

Former Attorney General of Ontario Michael Bryant has been charged with criminal negligence causing death and dangerous driving causing death as a result of an incident involving cyclist Darcy Allan Sheppard in downtown Toronto on August 31, 2009. Not surprisingly, the story has received massive attention in the press. The prospect of a former chief legal officer of the Province facing serious criminal charges makes for interesting reading. Much of the commentary thus far has of necessity been based upon unnamed sources and speculation. The information relevant to this case will come out in due course during the trial process. What is worth examining at this point is the legal standard necessary to obtain a conviction and the possible range of sentence in the event that Mr. Bryant were to be found guilty.

Section 219(1) of the Criminal Code sets out the offence of criminal negligence. It states: “Every one is criminally negligent who (a) in doing anything, or (b) in omitting to do anything that it is his duty to do, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons.” Section 220 goes on to provide that a person who causes death by criminal negligence is “liable to imprisonment for life.” Section 249(1)(a) of the Criminal Code sets out the offence of dangerous driving. It states: “Every one commits an offence who operates a motor vehicle in a manner that is dangerous to the public, having regard to all the circumstances, including the nature, condition and use of the place at which the motor vehicle is being operated and the amount of traffic that at the time is or might reasonably be expected to be at that place.” Section 249(4) goes on to provide that a person who causes death by dangerous driving is “liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.”

What these statutory provisions indicate is that decisions about guilt or innocence in this area of the law are based upon all the circumstances of the case. The Courts have fleshed out the general language in the Criminal Code and have held that, in order to secure a conviction, it is necessary to show that the conduct in question represented a “marked departure” from the norm of what could reasonably be expected of a prudent driver. In applying that standard however, judges or juries must take into account the facts which existed at the time of the offence and the defendant’s perception of those facts. Applying this to what we know now and have read about in the press thus far, Mr. Bryant may argue that he was faced with a terrifying set of circumstances brought on by the conduct of Mr. Sheppard and that he acted, perhaps out of fear or in the heat of the moment, consistent with what a reasonable person would have done in the circumstances.

This line of thinking is clearly nothing more than speculation at this point. Whether there is sufficient evidence to support such an argument, or whether there is evidence in the form of witness testimony or video recordings which would contradict such an argument, must await the trial itself. What is unarguable is that these are very serious charges, as shown by the maximum sentences set out in the Criminal Code. It is fair to say that, in the event Mr. Bryant were to be convicted, given the absence of a criminal record and his public service, he would not be facing a sentence of anywhere close to the maximum. The range of sentence ultimately depends heavily on the evidence at trial and the findings made by the Court on the circumstances supporting a conviction, however a range of eighteen months to three years would not seem to be out of line. In the event of a conviction, there would also be a lengthy prohibition on Mr. Bryant’s use of a motor vehicle. As there is likely to be a preliminary hearing before trial and the trial itself will take time, we will have to await the determination of these important issues.