By Tim Petruk
The fate of a man behind the wheel of a speedboat on Shuswap Lake more than eight years ago when it plowed into a houseboat, killing its driver, is now in the hands of a three-judge panel on B.C.’s highest court.
Leon Reinbrecht was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in federal prison following his conviction in 2015 on charges stemming from the July 3, 2010 crash that killed houseboat operator Ken Brown and left several other people injured.
Reinbrecht has appealed his conviction on the grounds the provincial government waited too long to take his matter to trial. The 56-year-old has been free on bail pending his appeal and was in Kamloops Law Courts on Oct. 30.
The legal proceedings against Reinbrecht have been protracted. He was not charged in connection with the fatal boat collision until 17 months after it had occurred. Another 46 months passed before he was convicted.
Defence lawyer Greg DelBigio argued in the B.C. Court of Appeal in Kamloops on Tuesday that Reinbrecht’s constitutional right to be tried within a reasonable time was violated under legal framework laid out by the Supreme Court of Canada — a case called R. v. Jordan — the year after Reinbrecht was convicted.
The framework sets strict timelines for accused people to proceed through the legal process. In Reinbrecht’s case, 30 months would have been the limit laid out under the new regime from the Supreme Court of Canada.
Tuesday’s hearing was not the first time lawyers had argued on his behalf about delay.
Following his trial, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Sheri Donegan presided over a hearing to determine whether Reinbrecht’s conviction should be thrown out because it took too long. Donegan ruled that it should not and she apportioned blame to both sides for the delay.
Donegan ruled Reinbrecht had suffered some prejudice because of delay, but not enough to overturn his conviction.
In court on Tuesday, DelBigio asked the B.C. Court of Appeal panel to look at Reinbrecht’s case through the delay lens established by Canada’s highest court in 2016 — after Donegan’s decision.
“The sole issue in this appeal is whether or not, under the new Jordan framework, a trial has taken too long,” he said.
DelBigio focused on a specific period of delay for Reinbrecht between October 2012 and July 2013 — time during which Reinbrecht was applying through court to receive government funding to pay his legal expenses. In Donegan’s decision, she declared that stretch of time to be neutral as far as blame is applied.
Reinbrecht’s income precluded him from receiving legal aid, but he could not afford to pay a lawyer to defend him against such complex allegations. He had to apply through court to receive a state-funded defence.
According to DelBigio, the Crown should be held responsible for those nine months of delay because they — prosecutors and the provincial government — could have signed off on funding from the outset. They did not and DelBigio described the process of financial disclosure required of Reinbrecht as a “daunting” one.
If the Court of Appeal judges decide the Crown should be found to have been at blame for the nine-month delay, it could lead to Reinbrecht’s conviction being quashed.
“It was a case which is far too complex for Mr. Reinbrecht to be self-represented and have there been a fair trial,” DelBigio said. “So there’s no doubt that a fair trial required Mr. Reinbrecht to be represented by counsel… It’s absolutely in the control of the Crown. The Crown can consent to an application.”
DelBigio said the Crown should have been willing to work with Reinbrecht to ensure his trial proceeded within a reasonable time.
“In this case, what ought to have happened? It was clear he needed a lawyer for there to be a fair trial,” he said. “He couldn’t afford a lawyer. It was clear there was going to be some funding. The Crown ought to have been flexible.”
B.C. Court of Appeal Justice David Frankel pushed back on DelBigio.
“The Crown has a duty with respect to the public purse,” he said. “In certain circumstances, the Crown has the obligation to fund the defence of the accused, but it is not a blank cheque.”
Eleven of Brown’s family and friends watched the hearing from the courtroom gallery.
At trial, witnesses described Reinbrecht as driving recklessly in the minutes leading up to the crash that killed Brown. The collision saw Reinbrecht’s speedboat embedded in Brown’s houseboat.
The collision took place in darkness near Magna Bay following a post-Canada Day fireworks display. Reinbrecht’s defence lawyer argued during trial that Brown’s houseboat was not sufficiently lit.
A date for the Court of Appeal decision has not been set.