Alberta law professors to help write final chapter of Edmonton patio crash trial
Richard Suter defence team to argue before the Supreme Court of Canada in what is sure to be precedent-setting sentencing appeal.
By BEN FREELAND
It has been one of Alberta’s most tragic and perplexing criminal cases in recent times, one that has captivated the public’s attention for over four years and provoked strong emotions at every stage.
If all goes according to plan, the case of the Crown versus Richard Suter will enter its final chapter on Oct. 11 when the case reaches the Supreme Court of Canada.
Appearing for the defence will be UAlberta law professor Peter Sankoff together with Suter’s longtime attorney (and UAlberta Law sessional instructor) Dino Bottos. Sankoff, whom Bottos invited to join the defence team ahead of the Supreme Court hearing, contends that the ultimate decision, whichever way it goes, will stand as a future cornerstone of law.
“The Supreme Court of Canada rarely hears sentencing appeals of any kind, and this one is particularly unusual,” said Sankoff.
Chaos and confusion
The undisputed facts of the case are now well known to most Albertans. In the evening of May 19, 2013, Richard Suter, whilst in the middle of a heated argument with his wife Gayska, accidentally drove his SUV through the glass partition of a restaurant patio in south Edmonton, striking a family of four. The crash resulted in the death of two-and-a-half year-old Geo Mounsef as well as injuries to the other three family members.
Following his arrest, Suter refused to take a breathalyzer test, having been instructed to do so by his lawyer. He was subsequently charged with impaired driving causing death and refusal to provide a breath sample. The trial judge, however, rejected the impaired driving charge citing lack of evidence and a “mistake of law” by the accused’s lawyer, and Suter was sentenced to four months in jail and a five-year driving prohibition on Dec. 17, 2015 after being found guilty of refusing to provide a breath sample in an accident where a death ensued.
Suter’s relatively light sentence was based primarily on the testimony of the police officers on the scene at the crash, who contended that the accused did not appear to be impaired, and on Suter’s assertion that he refused the breathalyzer test based solely on his lawyer’s advice. It also took into account the accused’s harrowing ordeal while out on bail, during which time he was kidnapped and tortured by vigilantes. The perpetrator of the vicious attack was sentenced to 12 years in prison in November 2016.
In August 2016, the Court of Appeal of Alberta accepted the Crown’s appeal that the initial four-month sentence was “unfit” and imposed a harsher sentence of 26 months, arguing that the mistake of law judgement had been misapplied and that Suter should be held culpable for his driving. The Crown also argued that the attack on Suter, while egregious, did not have any bearing on his culpability in the accident.
By this time the accused had completed his four-month sentence and now faced the prospect of more jail time. In January 2017 the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear the case.
Closure at last?
At the heart of the argument Bottos and Sankoff intend to present to the Supreme Court of Canada is that the Court of Appeal was not entitled to punish Suter for having driven in a sub-standard manner. Since he was only convicted of refusing to provide a breath sample, it was inappropriate to sentence him for other offending.
As Sankoff explains, the argument hinges on the fact that the offence committed by Suter had nothing to do with his driving per se, falling within the category of “administration of justice offences,” and,it was improper of the Court of Appeal to increase Suter's sentence by referring to matters that hadn't been proven, and didn't relate directly to what he had pleaded guilty to.
“You can’t be punished for an offence you haven’t been convicted of,” he said.
Regardless of the decision, Suter’s legal team believes the results of the case will be groundbreaking.
“It has all the hallmarks of a precedent-setting case,” said Bottos.
“The parameters of the mistake of law in this case and the other mitigating and aggravating factors are matters that the Supreme Court has never before weighed in on, and the very fact that the court granted us leave in this case must mean that they see this as a matter of national importance.”
Suter, for his part, is “cautiously optimistic” about the upcoming Supreme Court hearing, according to Bottos.
“It’ll be almost four and half years since the tragic accident took place,” said Bottos.
“Hopefully this will bring about some closure.”
For more background on the Suter case at the Supreme Court of Canada, Sankoff has provided a useful instructional video on the case on his blog.