After a lifetime of public service, Svend Robinson committed a crime. He stole a ring from an auction house, valued at up to $64,500, intending to give it to his partner. For his crime, he deserved to be charged, tried and judged as any Canadian would be.
Was he? A British Columbia court granted the 52-year-old Mr. Robinson a conditional discharge on Friday. He has been placed on a year's probation and ordered to complete 100 hours of community service. Some members of the public argue that the outspoken politician was accorded special treatment because of his fame or his membership in the political elite.
The Criminal Code says that a judge may grant a discharge to a guilty person if the maximum penalty for his crime is less than 14 years, if a discharge is in the best interests of the person and not contrary to the public interest. The maximum for theft over $5,000 is 10 years.
How are similar cases treated? Few shoplifting cases involve more than $5,000 worth of goods. Similarly, cases of theft of more than $5,000 do not usually involve those who have no record of stealing. So Mr. Robinson's case was unusual.
He was not, strictly speaking, a first-time offender. In 1994, he was convicted of criminal contempt of court, arising from a political protest. That record would not keep him from crossing international borders, and B.C.'s Provincial Court treated him this time as a first-time offender, as it would any other Canadian in similar circumstances.
Most first-time offenders who admit to stealing something and who express remorse are diverted from the courts in B.C. They meet with a probation officer and are put into counselling or community service, or both. This would not have been appropriate for such a major theft. Besides, lawmakers should be held to a high standard when it comes to obeying the law. Refining the above-stated principle, Mr. Robinson needed to be treated like other Canadians in similar circumstances -- in his case, those who hold positions of trust, respect or power.
Claude Charron, a Parti Québécois minister in 1982, resigned from cabinet after being charged with stealing a $120 coat from Eaton's. He was convicted and fined $300. But his political career was not over; he was soon re-elected and was back in cabinet. (A few months later he was charged with drunk driving and left politics.) But there were differences. Mr. Charron was caught in the act, and was even chased by a store employee; Mr. Robinson turned himself in, albeit after a four-day wait.
Mr. Robinson's tearful news conference in April in which he admitted to the theft was not, by itself, reason for a discharge. The tears may have been an indication of the stresses of the limelight rather than true remorse. And though he said he was suffering from severe stress, clearly it wasn't enough to keep him from taking a taxpayer-funded trip to Scotland last month for meetings of a European agency, despite no longer being an MP -- a display of exceedingly poor judgment.
In the end, the job of Judge Ron Fratkin was not to treat Mr. Robinson as a "famous Canadian" who should be made an example of. It was to treat him as an individual. The choice was between forgiveness, which implies a second chance, and a stern warning to all potential lawbreakers. "In Canada, we don't kick people when they're down," Judge Fratkin said.
We would quarrel with the judge's decision that 100 hours of community service was sufficient. While jail time would have served no purpose, assigning Mr. Robinson a longer period of performing chores for the community would have sent a stronger message about the seriousness of his offence. However, the sentiment Judge Fratkin expressed is a common feature of Canadian courtrooms, and a worthy one.