A trial judge made a mistake when she didn’t accept a joint sentence recommendation involving Behchokǫ̀’s Kirk John Mantla, the territory’s highest court has ruled.
Joint sentence recommendations – also known as plea bargains, or plea deals – are key to the efficient operation of the justice system.
The NWT Court of Appeal issued a ruling Friday that leaves Mantla a free man on one year’s probation.
He had been found guilty of hitting a man with a piece of wood and kicking his teeth out in the summer of 2017.
Mantla originally agreed to plead guilty in exchange for a joint recommendation of a six-month conditional sentence – also known as house arrest – followed by one year on probation. He had a criminal record with 17 convictions, six for violent crimes.
Territorial Court Judge Bernadette Schmaltz at the time rejected that recommendation, imposing instead a six-month jail sentence followed by two years on probation.
The three-judge appeal panel was asked to examine two aspects of Mantla’s case: firstly, whether Schmaltz (who retired in May 2018) misapplied the Supreme Court of Canada’s public interest test for rejecting a joint submission, and secondly whether another judge later erred in law by then upholding Schmaltz’s decision.
The judges – Calgary Justice JDB McDonald, Iqaluit Justice Susan Cooper, and Edmonton Justice Dawn Pentelechuk – ultimately agreed with Mantla’s lawyer, Ryan Clements, that Judge Schmaltz should not have interfered with the joint recommendation as a Supreme Court of Canada decision in 2016 restricts a judge’s ability to reject such a submission.
Schmaltz failed to account for the systemic benefits of joint submissions and admitted weaknesses in the Crown’s case, the appeal judges found.
The three judges also concluded the next judge, hearing the summary conviction appeal, had made an error in supporting Schmaltz’s decision.
The court of appeal determined that the safety of the community would not be endangered by Mantla serving his sentence in the community, and that a conditional sentence would be consistent with the fundamental purpose and principles of sentencing set out in the Criminal Code.
In this case, the Crown was aware that Mantla was “demonstrating pro-social conduct, supporting a young family, and recognizing his alcohol misuse,” stated the decision, acknowledging his record for violent crimes.
“Mr Mantla had, over the year pending his appeal hearing, demonstrated his ability to comply with strict terms of release, including abstinence from drugs and alcohol and compliance with a curfew,” stated the decision.
Mantla would have been under house arrest for the duration of the conditional sentence order, subject to limited exceptions including future employment and caring for his ill father.
Mantla had served 60 days in jail before obtaining bail pending his appeal. The appeal court ruled that the conditional sentence order has been served. He will be on probation for one year.
Mantla still faces an unrelated charge of sexual assault from 2019. He will be in Supreme Court on July 20 on that matter.