Supreme Court upholds Calgary man acquitted for assaulting woman while high on magic mushrooms

In a unanimous decision, the nation’s highest court has reinstated the acquittal of a Calgary man who, naked and high on mushrooms, assaulted a professor with a broomstick after breaking into her home.

Former Mount Royal University student Matthew Brown was charged with burglary and aggravated assault after a 2018 incident in which Janet Hamnett had broken bones in her hands.

Brown’s is one of three cases ruled on Friday by the Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) regarding whether the defense of extreme intoxication to the point of automatism — a term describing unconscious, involuntary behavior — is available to those who choose to use drugs and then commit acts of violence.

The court found the article of the Criminal Code that prohibits the use of the defense to be unconstitutional.

“While I am very disappointed with this decision, it is not about me at this stage. The most important thing to consider is that this is negatively impacting victims of aggravated assault across Canada – some of whom are no longer with us because they died as a result of their attacks,” Hamnett responded via email, citing two other cases the court ruled.

For Sullivan and Chan, two Ontario cases that were argued together, the court also issued a unanimous decision condemning David Sullivan’s acquittal and ordering a new trial for Thomas Chan.

Legislation, court urges

In Friday’s decision, Judge Nicholas Kasirer wrote that the part of the Criminal Code that prevents the defense of automatism violated the Charter in two ways.

Firstly, it is because an intent to get drunk is not an intent to commit a violent crime and secondly, a suspect can be convicted without the Crown having to prove intent or that the actions were voluntary.

In its 104 page decision, the court urged Parliament to pass legislation to protect victims of violent crimes committed while intoxicated.

The court stressed that “protecting the victims of violent crime – particularly in light of the equality and dignity of women and children vulnerable to intoxicated sexual and domestic acts – is an urgent and substantial social goal.”

Deadly attack on father

In the Sullivan and Chan cases, the two men used drugs and then, in states of psychosis, stabbed relatives. Sullivan injured his mother, while Chan killed his father.

In his case, Brown estimated that he took about 2.5 ounces of magic mushrooms and drank about 12-14 ounces of vodka plus a “couple of beers” before attacking Hamnett at her house, where he repeatedly “beat” her hands.

Twenty-eight years ago, Parliament made amendments to the Criminal Code, outlawing the use of self-generated intoxication defenses, but resulted in a “not very well-worded paragraph,” which has led judges to differing interpretations of it.” University of Calgary law professor Lisa Silver in a blog post about the cases.

Silver said in her post that the SCC needed to consider the law in that area as judges continued to reach different conclusions.

Case winds through 3 courts

Ahead of 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 allege his client was unable to form the required intent. to commit the crimes.

In May 2020, Brown, described by Fagan as “a good man who did something completely out of character”, was acquitted by a higher court after trial.

At the time, the case was believed to be the only one in Canada where there was a successful defense of extreme intoxication while using magic mushrooms.

But 14 months later, the Alberta Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal and convicted Brown of aggravated assault after ruling that he must bear the consequences of using illegal drugs “with reckless disregard for the potential risks”.

Connection between drunkenness and violent crime

Fagan took the case to Canada’s Supreme Court, 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 could not appreciate the nature and consequences of his actions and therefore should not be criminally convicted “for conduct of which they were unaware or of which they had no knowledge.” had control over”.

“The law tells them that they were responsible for this criminal behavior because they engaged in legal, everyday activities, without subjective or objective foresight that could trigger a state of automatism and subsequent criminal acts.”

But in fact, the prosecution pointed out that there is an “indisputable” correlation between drunkenness and violent crime, arguing that those who take substances and then lose control “should not be rewarded with immunity from criminal charges.”

“A person who chooses to get himself so intoxicated that he loses all conscious control and risks his life and creates a risk of injury and perhaps loss of other people’s life is not engaging in morally innocent behavior,” prosecutor Deborah Alford wrote. .

The case saw nine intermediaries, including five attorneys general from across Canada, as well as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, the Empowerment Council and the Women’s Legal and Action Fund (LEAF).

The decision of the SCC will be made public at 7:45 am MT.

Matthew Brown, left, was naked and high on magic mushrooms when he broke into Janet Hamnett’s Calgary home, right, and beat her with a broomstick. (Meghan Grant/CBC, Mount Royal University)

The attack

In 2018, Brown was a student at Mount Royal University. It’s the same school where Janet Hamnett was a professor, but the connection was purely coincidental.

Brown was a student athlete, captain of the university hockey team for many 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 drank and took magic mushrooms. According to his testimony, it was Brown’s second time using the drug. He said he had a positive experience the first time.

Just before 4 a.m., Brown’s friends noticed that he was standing naked outside the door. Then he ran outside and disappeared into the dark neighborhood.

A ‘terrible explosion’

Nearby, Hamnett, who lived alone, was awakened by what she described in her testimony as a “horrific explosion” — the sound of her sliding glass door shattering.

As she got out of bed to explore, Hamnett came face to face with Brown, who then began attacking her, beating her repeatedly with a broomstick.

Suddenly, Brown stopped and left the house. Hamnett was able to lock herself in a bathroom before running to a neighbor’s house and knocking on their door until they woke up.

Hamnett was covered in blood and had wounds to her hands, which she had wrapped in towels.

The neighbor called the police, who eventually found Brown at the home of another Springbank Hill resident.

When police discovered Brown, he was still naked and “screaming like an animal,” according to witness statements.

‘Not okay for that to get out of hand’

During the trial, psychologist Dr. Thomas Dalby that Brown was in a state of “brief but acute delirium” at the time of the incident.

A doctor specializing in forensic toxicology testified that Brown likely had an episode of delirium in which he was unaware of his surroundings and may have been experiencing delusions and hallucinations.

Brown has expressed regret on several occasions and has apologized twice to Hamnett, in court and outside the courthouse following his acquittal.

But Hamnett’s family has expressed conflicting emotions about Brown.

On the one hand, they felt he didn’t deserve to be “severely punished,” but on the other, Brown took an illegal substance voluntarily and should be held accountable somehow by the justice system, they say.

“It’s not okay for that to get out of hand and hurt people,” Hamnett’s daughter Lara Unsworth said at the time of his acquittal.

“There is no protection for innocent victims in this scenario – only the attackers,” wrote Hamnett, “Where is the justice in it? This opens a terrifying floodgate … and I fear for future victims.”

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