TORONTO - A former American military sniper who fired his gun to scare off a stray dog in a rural area of Ontario deserves another trial on charges of careless use of a firearm, the province's top court ruled Friday.
In its decision, the Court of Appeal said two lower courts were wrong to convict John Batty on the basis that the simple act of firing his gun was dangerous, and noted their rulings could have serious implications for those who live outside urban areas.
"Absent any finding as to the manner in which the rifle was used or the trajectory of the projectile, there may have been any number of ways in which the shot could have been fired which might have posed no risk to others," the Appeal Court said.
"This is not a situation like a shooting in a shopping mall, which would be inherently dangerous."
In deciding to hear the appeal, the top provincial court noted the implications of the guilty verdict for rural residents.
"The generality of the findings supporting the conclusion that the use of the rifle was careless may have broader significance relating to permissible farm practices," the court said.
Batty, 67, who lives near St. Thomas, Ont., was convicted in January last year. The summary conviction was upheld on first appeal in December.
He testified he was experienced in the use of firearms and routinely shot weasels, rats and vermin to keep them from his chickens.
The trial judge made no findings about how Batty had fired his rifle given there were no eye witnesses. However, he still concluded that discharging the weapon beside the road and close to neighbouring homes was inherently dangerous.
The initial appeal judge upheld the conviction, saying the trial judge's inferences that firing the weapon posed a safety risk to anyone in the area was reasonable.
Batty argued the conviction should be set aside on the grounds there was no evidence to show his use of the rifle was necessarily careless and the Court of Appeal agreed.
"In our view, the trial judge and the summary conviction judge both erred in concluding that firing a shot in this rural environment, whatever the manner in which the shot was fired, necessarily amounted to a marked departure from the conduct of a reasonable person," the Appeal Court found.
"The conviction cannot be sustained."
Batty's lawyer, Phillip Millar, said the ruling was important for all rural residents.
"(Farmers) can't be at risk of being convicted because somebody heard a shot," Millar said.