In a unanimous decision, the nation’s highest court restored the acquittal of a Calgary man who, while naked and high on mushrooms, attacked a female teacher with a broomstick after breaking into her home.
Mount Royal University alumnus Matthew Brown has been charged with burglary and aggravated assault after a 2018 incident that left Janet Hamnett with broken bones in her hands.
Brown’s is one of three cases the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) ruled on Friday dealing with whether the defense of extreme intoxication to the point of automatism, a term that describes unconscious and involuntary behavior, is available to those who chose to take drugs. and then end up committing acts of violence.
The court has declared unconstitutional the article of the Penal Code that prevents the use of defense.
“While I am very disappointed in this decision, it is not about me at this stage. What is more important to consider is that this negatively impacts victims of aggravated assault across Canada, some of whom are no longer with us because They died as a result.” of their attacks,” Hamnett reacted by email, referring to two other cases the court ruled on.
For Sullivan and Chan, two Ontario cases argued together, the court also issued a unanimous decision upholding David Sullivan’s decision. acquittal and order a new trial for Thomas Chan.
Enact legislation, court urges
In Friday’s decision, Judge Nicholas Kasirer wrote that the section of the Penal Code that prevents the automatism defense violated the Charter in two ways.
First, because the intent to get drunk is not the intent to commit a violent crime, and second, an accused person can be convicted without the Crown having to prove intent or that the actions were willful.
In its 104-page decision, the court urged Parliament to enact legislation to protect victims of violent crimes committed during extreme intoxication.
The court emphasized that “protecting victims of violent crime, particularly in light of the interests of equality and dignity of women and children who are vulnerable to intoxicated sexual and domestic acts, is a compelling and substantial social purpose.”
fatal attack on father
In the Sullivan and Chan cases, the two men used drugs and then, in states of psychosis, stabbed family members. Sullivan injured his mother, while Chan killed her father.
In his case, Brown estimated that he took about 2.5 grams of magic mushrooms and drank between 12 and 14 ounces of vodka plus “a few beers” before attacking Hamnett at his home, where he repeatedly “crushed” his hands.
Twenty-eight years ago, Parliament made changes to the Penal Code, banning the use of the self-induced intoxication defence, but resulting in “a section not very well drafted”, which “has led judges to arrive at different interpretations of the same”. wrote University of Calgary law professor Lisa Silver in a blog post about the cases.
Silver said in his post that the SCC needed to weigh in on the law in that area because judges continued to come to differing conclusions.
The case winds through 3 cut levels
Before Brown’s 2019 trial, a Calgary judge struck down legislation that prevents the defense from being used in similar cases, paving the way for attorney Sean Fagan to argue that his client was unable to form the requisite intent to commit the crimes. crimes.
In May 2020, Brown, described by Fagan as “a good man who did something completely out of character”, was acquitted by a high court judge after trial.
At the time, the case was believed to be the only one in Canada involving a successful defense of extreme intoxication while taking magic mushrooms.
But 14 months later, the Alberta Court of Appeals overturned the acquittal and convicted Brown of aggravated assault after ruling that he must bear the consequences of using illegal drugs “without regard to the potential risks.”
Connection between intoxication and violent crime
Fagan took the case to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing in November that the country’s highest court should reinstate Brown’s acquittal.
In their 47-page factum, Fagan and co-counsel Michelle Biddulph argued that Brown failed to appreciate the nature and consequences of his actions and therefore should not face criminal conviction “for conduct of which they were unaware.” Or they couldn’t control.
“The law tells them that they were responsible for this criminal behavior because they engaged in a legal, banal activity, without subjective or objective forecast that it could result in a state of automatism and consequent criminal offenses.”
But in its factum, the prosecution noted that there is an “indisputable” correlation between intoxication and violent crime and argued that those who take substances and then lose control “should not be rewarded with immunity from criminal prosecution.”
“Someone who chooses to self-intoxicate to the point of losing all conscious control and risking their life and creating a risk of injury and perhaps loss of life to others is not engaging in morally innocent behavior,” prosecutor Deborah Alford wrote. .
The case involved nine interveners, including five attorneys general from across Canada, as well as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Council for Empowerment, and the Women’s Action and Legal Fund (LEAF).
In 2018, Brown was a student at Mount Royal University. It’s the same school where Janet Hamnett was a teacher, but the connection was purely coincidental.
Brown was a student athlete, having been captain of the varsity hockey team for several years, and had no criminal record.
One night in January, he met friends at a house in the southwestern community of Springbank Hill.
The friends were drinking and taking magic mushrooms. It was the second time Brown had used the drug, according to his testimony. He said that he had had a positive experience the first time.
Just before 4 a.m., Brown’s friends noticed that he was naked at the door. He then ran off and disappeared into the dark neighborhood.
A ‘terrifying explosion’
Nearby, Hamnett, who lived alone, woke up to what she described in her testimony as a “terrifying explosion” — the sound of the sliding glass door breaking.
When she got out of bed to explore, Hamnett came face to face with Brown, who then began attacking her, hitting her repeatedly with a broom handle.
Suddenly, Brown stopped and left the house. Hamnett was able to lock himself in a bathroom before running to a neighbor’s house and banging on the door until they woke up.
Hamnett was covered in blood and suffered injuries to her hands, which she had wrapped in towels.
The neighbor called police, who eventually found Brown inside the home of another Springbank Hill resident.
When police discovered Brown, he was still naked and “screaming like an animal,” according to witness testimony.
‘It’s not okay to get that out of control’
At trial, psychologist Dr. Thomas Dalby testified that Brown was in a state of “brief but acute delirium” at the time of the crimes.
A doctor who specializes in forensic toxicology testified that Brown likely experienced a delusional episode in which he was unaware of his surroundings and may have suffered from delusions and hallucinations.
Brown has, on several occasions, expressed remorse and apologized twice to Hamnett, in court and out of court after his acquittal.
But Hamnett’s family has expressed mixed emotions about Brown.
On the one hand, they didn’t feel he deserved to be “severely punished,” but on the other hand, Brown voluntarily took an illegal substance and should be held accountable to the justice system in some way, they say.
“It’s not okay to get that out of control and hurt people,” Hamnett’s daughter, Lara Unsworth, said at the time of her acquittal.
“There is no protection for the innocent victims in this scenario, only for the perpetrators,” Hamnett wrote, “Where is the justice in that? This opens a terrifying floodgate…and I fear for future victims.”