Justin Ronald Beatty was driving on the Trans-Canada Highway on July 23, 2003 when, for no apparent reason, his truck suddenly crossed the solid centre line and collided with an oncoming car, killing three people. Beatty was charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death. He was acquitted at trial on the grounds that his momentary lapse of attention was not enough to establish fault. The Crown appealed, and the Court of Appeal ordered a new trial after concluding that the trial judge had misapplied the fault standard. Beatty appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which undertook to clarify the test for penal negligence. Writing for the majority, Charron J. expounded that test and restored Beatty’s acquittal. Her judgment offers cogent guidance on a thorny question in criminal law: when is a person criminally liable for causing harm he or she neither intends nor foresees?
A core principle of Canadian criminal law is that a wrongful act does not suffice to establish criminal culpability; the accused must also possess a guilty mind. This principle is often expressed via the maxim actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea: the act is not culpable unless the mind is guilty. Although this maxim is ubiquitous, it is hardly instructive, for it immediately begs the question what is a guilty mind? This question is so deeply contested and morally freighted as to seem intractable. Nevertheless, it remains critically important we address it. The guilty mind requirement is a key means by which we seek to ensure that only blameworthy people are held criminally liable. Our insistence that criminal liability be reserved for the blameworthy is at the core of our criminal justice culture. We believe criminal punishment is justified, and justifiably stigmatizing, because we take it to accord with our broader moral judgments. Our beliefs about blameworthiness thus animate and validate the criminal justice system even as we continue to debate them.