SCC dismisses appeals in manslaughter case: confessions admissible despite previous Charter breaches

The court was split, 5-4, in the ruling

SCC dismisses appeals in manslaughter case: confessions admissible despite previous Charter breaches

In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed the appeals of two men convicted of manslaughter, finding that the confessions police obtained after several Charter breaches were admissible.

The majority in R. v. Beaver, 2022 SCC 54 confirmed lower court rulings that, though police had breached the accused’s Charter rights by unlawfully detaining them, in the case of one of the men, they had made a “fresh start” by reading him his Charter rights before making the arrest and obtaining the confession. While the “fresh start” did not apply to the other accused, the majority found his confession was admissible because its inclusion, despite the Charter violations, would not throw the administration of justice into disrepute.

An Alberta court had convicted the appellants, James Beaver and Brian Lambert for manslaughter, in relation to the death of their roommate and landlord, Sutton Bowers.

Following Bowers’ death, Lambert called 911 and said he and Beaver had arrived home and found him dead. Police took the two under detention, and later arrested them at the police station for murder. During his interrogation, Lambert confessed that he and Beaver were involved in Bowers’ death. The police brought this information to Beaver, and he confirmed it.

But it turned out that the police had initially detained Beaver and Lambert under the authority of the Medical Examiners Act – legislation which does not exist. According to Lambert’s SCC factum, the officer later testified in a voir dire that he had meant to invoke the Fatalities Inquiries Act, but acknowledged that, while that act does exist, it does not give police the power of detention.

That made the initial detention a breach of the accused’s Charter rights, under ss. 9, 10(a), and 10(b). But the police tried to correct course by making a “fresh start,” and advising them of the Charter rights before they arrested them for murder at the police station.

The trial judge convicted the pair of manslaughter, found that the “fresh start” meant that the confessions were not obtained in a manner that breached the Charter and that neither should be excluded under s. 24(2). The Court of Appeal dismissed the conviction appeal, found no error in the judge’s finding that the confessions were voluntary, and found that the police had reasonable and probable grounds for the arrest. The appellate court confirmed that the fresh start saved the confessions from being tainted by the Charter breaches.

Both Beaver and Lambert appealed the finding that their confessions should not be excluded under s. 24(2), and Beaver also appealed the voluntariness of his confession.

At the SCC, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) intervened to ensure that "Charter remedies remain accessible," and to argue for a "broad and purposive approach to the "obtained in a manner" threshold, says Samara Secter, a partner at Addario Law Group LLP, and counsel for the CCLA.

"If the police violate an individual’s Charter rights, later police compliance does not automatically fix that violation," she says. "The 'fresh start' principle is an unhelpful analytical tool. It places judicial focus on Charter compliant police conduct and limits a defendant’s access to Charter remedies."

In R. v. Beaver, 2022 SCC 54, a divided SCC dismissed the appeals, with Justices Richard Wagner, Michael Moldaver, Malcolm Rowe, Nicholas Kasirer, and Mahmud Jamal comprising the majority.

The majority confirmed that Beaver’s confession was voluntary, that there were reasonable and probable grounds behind both arrests, but that police had only made a fresh start in Lambert’s case, not Beaver’s. While the latter’s confession was obtained via a Charter breach, the majority’s 24(2) inquiry found inclusion of the evidence would not bring the justice system into disrepute.

Justices Andromache Karakatsanis, Suzanne Côté, Russell Brown, and Sheilah Martin would have allowed the appeals, set aside the convictions, and ordered new trials. The minority disagreed with their colleagues that the police could lawfully arrest and continue questioning the accused after the Charter breaches. And the arrest was based on information that “does not come close” to the particularized probability requirement under the reasonable grounds standard, they said.

The minority also disagreed with the majority on the test for evidence exclusion under s. 24(2), would have excluded Beaver’s and Lambert’s confessions, and said the idea of a fresh start “is an unhelpful and potentially misleading concept that has no place in the s. 24(2) analysis.”


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