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What is a Criminal Charge and What is Not?

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Many people in the Greater Toronto Area are surprised to learn that driving under the influence (DUI) is a “criminal” offence. Some people are also not aware that many low-level offences, such as shoplifting, vandalism, uttering threats, and other unlawful actions can also result in “criminal” charges. This means that unless the criminal charges are dropped, dismissed, or otherwise favourably settled, a conviction will result in a criminal record along with other penalties handed down by the court.

Given the public’s general lack of awareness that DUI and some other offences can result in criminal charges, the lawyers of the Mass Tsang thought it would be a good idea to provide GTA readers with a refresher on what constitutes a criminal charge and what does not . The difference in severity of penalties mandated by a criminal conviction compared to a non-criminal conviction is such that those charged with criminal offences should always seek the services of a criminal lawyer to ensure the best possible outcome. Mass Tsang lawyers have successfully defended 1,000-plus clients from criminal charges and stand ready to help you with your criminal defence.

Basic Difference Between Criminal and Non-Criminal Charges

Most criminal charges are codified by Canada’s Criminal Code, but some criminal offences are codified under other legislation, including:

  • Controlled Drugs and Substances Act
  • Firearms Act
  • Food and Drugs Act
  • Youth Criminal Justice Act
  • Canada Evidence Act
  • Contraventions Act

Criminal charges are tried as either an indictable or summary conviction offence. Many crimes are also treated as hybrid offences , which allows the Crown prosecutor to decide whether to pursue charges as an indicatable or summary conviction offence. Indictable offences are typically reserved for the most serious crimes, with convictions resulting in a minimum prison sentence of two years and a maximum of life in prison. Summary conviction offences typically cover less serious crimes, such as simple assault and theft under $5,000. Maximum penalties for most summary offence convictions are six months in prison (though a few offences carry 18-month or two-year maximums).

Whether an indictable or summary conviction offence, when the Crown lays charges under the Criminal Code it represents a criminal offence, with a resultant criminal record upon conviction.

Non-criminal charges are regulatory offences as legislated by the Province of Ontario. Such offences include, but are not limited to:

  • Speeding, careless driving, failure to wear a seat belt, and other motor vehicle violations.
  • Public intoxication, selling alcohol to minors, and other alcohol-related charges.
  • Trespassing
  • Occupational health and safety violations.
  • Noise and public nuisance by-laws.

However, some provincial regulatory offences are also covered by the Criminal Code. For example, public intoxication and trespassing (when at night) are also listed as criminal offences under the Code. In such situations, police and prosecutors have the option to charge alleged violators under either the Criminal Code or provincial law, and even, in some cases, both.

How to Get Out of or Otherwise Mitigate Criminal Charges

While mounting a successful criminal defence during trial is definitely one way to get out of criminal charges, many summary conviction offence cases are favorably resolved before trial. Such favorable resolutions can include dropped or withdrawn charges, plea deals that reduce criminal charges to non-criminal charges, and absolute or conditional discharges. In fact, skilled criminal defence lawyers—such as those at Mass Tsang—are highly adept at securing such outcomes in lieu of mounting a costly trial defence.

Dropped or withdrawn charges represent a best-case outcome for resolving criminal charges, but getting charges reduced is far more common. Absolute and conditional discharges are plea deals that allow a suspect to plead guilty, but automatically suspends the criminal record after completion of the terms of the sentence. Criminal lawyers tend to pursue this option when the Crown has overwhelming evidence to support the criminal charges.

Note that some of our domestic assault clients wonder whether a victim can drop criminal charges. The answer is no, as there is no such thing as private criminal charges. Police lay criminal charges and only the Crown prosecutor has the power to withdraw charges. That said, victims— domestic assault and otherwise—can recant their original statements that led to the criminal charges. Depending upon the strength of their case and other evidence, a prosecutor may or may not withdraw charges based on recanted statements.

How Long Do Criminal Charges Stay on Record?

While a conviction on criminal charges technically results in a criminal record for life, the Canadian government allows for pardons on most offences. Under the Record Suspension program, those convicted of a summary offence can apply for a pardon (record suspension) after five years, while those convicted of an indictable offence are eligible after 10 years. Note that the time frame only begins after all elements—payment of fines and completion of jail/prison terms, probation, and/or community service — have been completed. Additionally, one must maintain good conduct and not be charged with additional criminal offences during the time frame.

Those with absolute or conditional discharges do not have to apply for record suspension. An absolute discharge automatically removes the criminal record after one year and a conditional discharge automatically removes it after three years.

Once a record suspension has been granted, the criminal record technically still exists, but it can only be released by permission of the public safety minister, which rarely happens.

Consult with Mass Tsang for your Criminal Defence Needs

If you or a loved one is facing criminal charges in the Ontario court system, don’t gamble with your future by defending yourself on your own. Given the potential penalties, criminal record, and disruption to your life that can result from a guilty conviction, contact the highly experienced lawyers at Mass Tsang to ensure that you have the most effective defense to successfully address the criminal charges.

Mass Tsang lawyers are highly effective at strategizing the most favorable response to criminal charges. Depending upon the charges and Crown’s evidence, this could entail a move to withdraw or dismiss charges, negotiate a plea deal for reduced charges or discharge, or mount a solid defense tailored for acquittal.



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