In any criminal law case in Canada, the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove the accused person is guilty beyond reasonable doubt. The expression ‘reasonable doubt’ has a very specific meaning in a legal context and it is a fundamental premise in all criminal trials. Among other things, it means that the burden of proving guilt always remains with the Crown and is never on the defendant. In R. v. Lifchus, 1997, the Supreme Court of Canada summarized the definition of reasonable doubt, which it asserts must be fully understood by a jury in order to achieve a fair criminal trial:
- The standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt is directly related to the presumption of innocence, which is a fundamental principle in all criminal trials.
- The burden of proof always rests on the prosecution and never shifts to the accused, throughout a trial.
- Reasonable doubt must be based on reason and common sense, not on prejudice or sympathy.
- Reasonable doubt is logically connected to the evidence or the lack thereof.
- It does not require proof to an absolute certainty or beyond any doubt.
- Conviction requires more than proof that the accused is likely guilty; if a jury concludes the accused is probably guilty, they must acquit.
A failure to prove an accused person’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt is a common reason for dismissal of charges, just as it should be. The presumption of innocence is an important, even sacrosanct, right for all Canadians. This right is guaranteed under Section 11(d) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that anyone charged with an offence has the right “to be presumed innocent until proven guilty according to law in a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal”.
Reasonable doubt raised in the trial R. v. Medeiros
R. v. Medeiros, is a 2015 trial involving DUI charges and it is a case that exemplifies the Crown’s onus to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The defendant in this case had been arrested on impaired driving and over ‘80’ charges after an officer spotted the man staggering towards his cruiser about 600 meters from a single-car collision involving a car for which the man was the registered owner. The car had flipped over on its roof and had serious damage to the front-end, but only the driver airbag had deployed. The accused was the only person found near the scene, and a sniffer dog was utilized to determine if the scent of any other people could be traced from the car, but none were found.
There was evidence of a concussion and bleeding on the man’s face and shirt, and a mild concussion was confirmed later in the emergency room at a nearby Mississauga hospital. The man exhibited severe confusion at the time of his arrest and believed himself to be in Milton, rather than Mississauga. The readings for the two breath samples later given in the Intoxilyzer test conducted at the station were 180 and 170mg, respectively in 100 ml of blood; thus, well over the legal limit.
The key issues addressed by the judge in the Medeiros trial were:
- Was the accused driving at the time of the accident?
- Did the arresting officer have reasonable grounds to arrest him?
- Were the accused’s rights under the Charter, s.8 breached during the arrest, and if so, should the results of the Intoxilyzer breath test be excluded?
- Were the statements made by the accused in the breath room voluntary?
The judge did not contest the issues of reasonable grounds for arrest or whether the accused’s rights were breached during the arrest. Although the defendant did not remember having read his rights or being cautioned about making a statement, he also did not remember much else about the night in question. Also, the officers made notes after they cautioned him and the judge believed the arresting officers’ testimony about cautioning the accused. However, in the end, the second and third issue were not answered at trial because the judge determined that the first and fourth issue were sufficient to decide the case.
With regards to whether the comments made by the accused were voluntary, the judge dismissed the accused’s statements to the breath technician because there was reasonable doubt that the accused had sufficient awareness and an ‘operating mind’ in terms of what he was saying. Initially, the accused said he didn’t know who was driving his car, then he suggested that a close friend drove it, then he reversed his story and told the breath technician that he drove the car. Whether or not someone has an ‘operating mind’ is one of the key considerations with regards to the validity or admissibility of a confession. Because the accused’s mind was affected by alcohol, a concussion and the accident, and his behaviour evidenced distinct signs of confusion, the judge determined that he could not have understood that his statements to the police and breath technician could be used against him. Therefore, the statements were deemed ‘involuntary’ and thus excluded from evidence.
A pivotal issue in the trial was whether the accused was actually driving. A long-time friend who attended the same party as the accused, testified that the accused drank a great deal on the night in question, passed out and was asleep on the couch just prior to leaving the event. The friend further testified that the accused decided to leave when another friend came to drive him, at which point he “got in the backseat of the car and he was-like he was finished” and there was no way he could operate a car in his condition. The accused similarly testified that he remembered being helped into the back seat of the car, but remembered little else, including who was driving his car. The judge concluded that the testimony of the accused and his friend, as well as the lack of blood on the driver airbag, raised reasonable doubt that the accused was driving the car at the time of the accident. Accordingly, the accused was found ‘not guilty’.
In making a decision to acquit the accused on all DUI charges, the judge referred to applicable case law pertaining to the credibility of an accused. The first is that you must acquit if you believe the testimony of the accused. The second is that even if you do not believe the accused’s testimony but are left in reasonable doubt by it, the only fair decision is to acquit.
Reasonable doubt is only one of the legal requirements that must be met in a criminal trial, but certainly a fundamental principle. If you have been charged with a criminal offence, the choice of an experienced and skilled criminal lawyer is likely the most important decision you can make at this time. At the Law Firm of Ted Yoannou, we have successfully defended many persons on DUI charges. Call Ted Yoannou today to get us immediately working on having your charges dismissed or in building a strong defense should your case go to trial.