Monday 8 June 2015

AWOL penalties in Canadian armed forces                     

The term, AWOL means Absent Without Official Leave (permission), It is not to be construed as desertion which is far more serious offence. 

Bombardier Blinn was a member of the Canadian Forces, Regular Force, posted to A Battery, 1st Regiment, Royal Canadian Horse Artillery, Canadian Forces Base Shilo in the Province of Manitoba. His period of enlistment would be over on June 10th 2014.                                                      

On 25 March 2014, the members of A Battery, 1st Regiment Royal Canadian Horse Artillery were required to report for duty at 0730 for physical training which was to be held at the General Strange Hall Sports Field at the Canadian Forces Base Shilo.  Bombardier Blinn was aware that he was required to report for duty at 0730 at the General Strange Hall Sports Field.  He had not been granted leave for this period nor had he been exempted from the requirement to report for duty at 0730.  At 0730 on 25 March 2014, Bombardier Blinn was absent from his place of duty at the General Strange Hall Sports Field and did not report for physical training until 0735, thereby being five minutes late. 

He was charged with AWOL and brought before a court martial. Let me state from the start of this article, the decision to bring him before a court martial is one of the stupidest things I have ever heard of.                               

Courts martial have the authority to try a wide range of military offences— many of which closely resemble civilian crimes like fraud, theft, illicit drug offences or perjury. Others, like cowardice, desertion, and insubordination, are purely military crimes and they too are subjected to courts martial,   

Canada’s National Defence Act creates a two-tier system of military justice. The first tier, where most disciplinary matters are dealt with, is the summary trial system. The second tier of the military justice system is the formal court martial system. The term service tribunal means either an officer presiding at a summary trial, or a court martial.

Let me give you some idea of what constitutes a summary trial in the Canadian armed forces.

When I was in the Navy boot Camp in HMCS Cornwallis, Nova Scotia in 1952, I was late for parade and got five days number five punishment. That was six hours extra work each of those days and no leaving the base during those days. I also had to run around the parade ground with a rifle on my shoulder for one hour. I was tried and sentenced by the commander of the base.

Later when I was late for parade in HMCS Naden in British Columbia, I was tried and sentenced to spend a night in the brig. I was tried and sentenced by the commander of that base also.

When I was doing my seamanship training on HMCS Ontario a light cruiser with 800 men on board, I was charged with being AWOL Our ship was docked at our base and I left the ship to go to the naval stores to buy a greatcoat to replace the one that was stolen from me. I returned to the ship half an hour later with the new greatcoat. The captain found me guilty and fined me two dollars.   In today’s money that would be equivalent to $14.30

At no time was I ever brought before a court martial as my offences were too minor for such a trial.

Incidentally, when I finally left the service, it was with an honourable discharge.

The judge in Bombardier Blinn’s trial said. “You have pleaded guilty to the offence of absence without leave, (AWOL) contrary to section 90 of the National Defence Act. Having accepted and recorded your plea of guilty to the third charge on the charge sheet, the court now finds you guilty of this charge.  It is now my duty to determine an appropriate, fair and just sentence.” Please note: Keelhauling and whipping went out centuries ago.

The court had considered the principles of sentencing that apply in the military justice system, the facts of the case as disclosed in the documents introduced in evidence, as well as the submissions of counsel for the prosecution and the defence.

The fundamental purposes of sentencing by service tribunals in the military justice system, of which courts martial are one type, are:  to promote the operational effectiveness of the Canadian Forces by contributing to the maintenance of discipline, efficiency and morale; and to contribute to respect for the law and the maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe conduct within the armed forces and society in general.  

The fundamental purposes of appropriate discipline are achieved by the imposition of just sanctions that have one or more of the following objectives:  to promote a habit of obedience to lawful commands and orders; to maintain public trust in the Canadian Forces as a disciplined armed force; to denounce unlawful conduct; to deter offenders and other persons from committing offences; to assist in rehabilitating offenders; to assist in reintegrating offenders into military service; to separate offenders, if necessary, from other officers or non-commissioned members or from society generally; to provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community; and to promote a sense of responsibility in offenders and an acknowledgement of the harm done to victims and to the community.

When our ship, the HMCS Ontario was in Rio de Janeiro in 1953, three of us seamen were facing the captain for discipline. I was charged with being careless with government property, to wit; dropping a swagger stick in a gap in in a railway rail on the dock. While I was on guard duty, my hands were sweaty and the swagger stick slipped out of my hands and fell in the narrow space. I couldn’t get my hand into it to retrieve the swagger stick. There I was on the aft deck the next sunny morning with over a hundred men watching the procedure. The captain was extremely angry. Not at me but at the Commander. He said loudly enough for everyone to hear, “Why was this man charged in the first place over something as trivial as dropping a swagger stick on a hot day?  If this man is charged over something as trivial as this again, someone else is going to pay dearly. Is my message being received?” The commander replied meekly, “Yes, Sir. It is.”  Then the captain turned to me and said, “You can go back to your duty, Seaman Batchelor.”

However, the men were not back aft of the ship to see my brief trial. They were there to see the sentencing of the other two seamen. The day before, one of them was tried for stealing something from the commander’s quarters. The other man was tried for breaking into another seaman’s locker and stealing money from the locker. The membership of the seaman’s court martial comprised of their peers—fellow seamen and several officers. They convicted both men. The man who stole something from the commander’s quarters was sentenced to six months in the military stockade in Edmonton, Alberta.  With reference to the second seaman, the captain wanted to get a message across to all seamen. Do not steal from your fellow seamen. The thief was then sentenced to two years in prison. Within hours, both men were  escorted off the ship, and under custody, flown back to Canada where the first seaman spend the six months in the stockade and the second was sent to the penitentiary in British Columbia. Both men also received a dishonourable discharge.

The fundamental principle of sentencing is that a sentence must be proportionate to the gravity of the offence and the degree of responsibility of the offender. Now I appreciate the fact that you might think that a sentence of two years in prison for stealing a small sum of money from a fellow seaman’s locker and stealing a small inexpensive item from an officer’s quarters doesn’t merit such a severe sentence. The gravity of the offence of stealing money from a fellow seaman on a ship is considered very serious and rightfully so. It was for that reason that he got such a heavy sentence.

Other sentencing principles include:  a sentence should be increased or reduced to account for any relevant aggravating or mitigating circumstances; a sentence should be similar to sentences imposed on similar offenders for similar offences committed in similar circumstances; an offender should not be deprived of liberty by imprisonment or detention if less restrictive sanctions may be appropriate in the circumstances; a sentence should be the least severe sentence required to maintain discipline, efficiency and morale; and any indirect consequences of the finding of guilty or the sentence should be taken into consideration.

In the cases of the thieving seamen, there were no mitigating circumstances that justified them getting lesser sentences but what about Bombardier Blinn, the subject of this article? I think that subjecting him to a court martial was overkill and at a tremendous cost to the taxpayers. He agreed to the penalty for an “absent without leave” charge and received a $200 fine.  This incident cost the Armed Forces thousands of dollars to  fly him to Shilo for the trial, feed and put him up in hotels along with cost of the lawyers, judge and court staff involved in the trial. This is military justice running amuck on the taxpayer's dime.

Now here is something interesting. He left the armed forces on June 20th 2014. His s trial was in 2015. Why was he tried after he was no longer in the army? He was tried on January 15th 2015 because his offences were federal offences and the court had the jurisdiction to put him on trial and sentence him—which it chose to do.  

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