The acquittal of former MRU student Matt Brown
By Christian Kindrachuk, Staff Writer
On March 3, 2020, Alberta courts found that the case of Matthew Brown, a former MRU student charged with assault and breaking and entering, to be acquitted of the charges against him.
The courts accepted the evidence presented by the defence as “extreme intoxication akin to automatism,” according to the transcript of the verdict. Ritesh Narayan, a teacher in the department of criminal justice at MRU says that his class wants to talk about the case because they are baffled by the verdict.
“They’re quite confused because here we teach them one thing and the result that they saw in this particular case was contrary to what we usually teach. It was quite shocking,” says Narayan.
In a statement given by Lesley Brown, Provost and Vice-President, Academic, Mount Royal University had this to say about the case: “This was a very difficult event for the Mount Royal community, but in particular, of course, for our faculty member. The university is focused on supporting our campus community.”
In a functioning democracy everyone is presumed innocent, unless the Crown decides on the offence beyond a reasonable doubt according to Lisa Silver. Silver is an assistant professor at the University of Calgary for the Faculty of Law and says that there are a lot of factors in place for a verdict to be found with acquittal or not.
“It’s the fact that this case raises capacity issues and capacity is whether or not someone is even capable of committing these offenses,” Silver says.
This is evident in the Brown case due to the aspect of, mental disorders, intoxication and automatism which fall under the capacity issue. The judge found that Brown qualified for non-mental disorder automatism or more commonly referred to as delierem.
In Canada there have not been a lot of causes that have used a defence related to automatism and the ones that have usually result in refining the use of that defence — like in a case from the 90s — R. v. Stone — where non-mental disorder automatism was also used.
“The law in all of those issues is not particularly straightforward. There are lines of authority for each of those areas that have developed over time and as a result, they impact each other,” says Silver.
Now with intoxication as one of the other capacity issues makes this case even more complicated because it also brings into question self-intoxication in the criminal code section 33.1, according to Silver.
“The problem with extreme intoxication as a form of automatism is that intoxication is self induced, and typically, automatism, non mental disorder automatism, or even mental disorder automatism . . . are typically resulting from something that is beyond the control of the accused,” says Silver.
Silver does not believe that this case will not be enough to set a precedent in the eyes of the courts and discuss how the law’s capacity to respond to intoxicated automatism in her blog.
Narayan says it’s possible that this could set a precedent down the road.
“This is a dangerous one. Basically, what this says is that if you’re thinking of committing a crime, don’t get just a little drunk, get really drunk and then commit the crime,” says Narayan. “Get drunk to a point of automatism, because then you’ll be acquitted. It is a dangerous message and I’m afraid that it could be used again.”
Narayan also pointed out what he thinks is a failure on part of the legal justice system, which is the forgotten party in a court of law — the victim.
“In this particular case because the person was not found guilty, no victim impact statement was read in court, so there’s very little closure,” says Narayan. “She was not able to share her story and her experience and how she’s been dealing with it, but she probably feels re-victimized and this time being victimized by the legal system.”
Since the case was acquitted a victim impact statement was not heard in the court case, but that does not change Narayan or Silver’s mind in that they can see this case getting appealed due to the charter arguments this case brings up with the defence used.
“I can see it possibly going all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada because with the law on automatism, the area is very gray,” says Narayan. “We don’t have clear-cut cases that will say that ‘This is automatism, and this is not,’ so this particular case could add to the understanding of what autism is in law.”
“This issue is so complicated that it really can’t stand at a trial level, it’s going to have to be argued. Over and above that automatism is still supposed to be a very rare case that results in an acquittal and it has to be very case specific. This case needs to be looked at on an appellate level for many reasons — for the legal reasons, for the approach taken in this case when I read the decision and because of the charter situation,” says Silver.
As of March 17, 2020, the Crown is appealing Brown’s acquittal.