10/09/2014 01:10 EDT | Updated 12/09/2014 05:59 EST

High court rules threats of violence can be used for dangerous offender status

OTTAWA - The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that the threat of violence is inherently a form of violence and can be used in determining whether someone should be locked up indefinitely.

The court has overturned lower-court rulings in the case of John Steele, a Winnipeg man with a long criminal history, who was convicted of robbing a drugstore in 2010. He told a cashier he had a gun, although there was no evidence he had one and the cashier was not injured.

The Crown sought to have Steele declared either a long-term offender, which would mean long-term supervision after release, or a dangerous offender, which would carry an indefinite prison sentence.

The Crown based its argument on Steele's lengthy record and Section 752 of the Criminal Code, which says people repeatedly convicted of "the use or attempted use of violence" can be assessed for such status.

But the trial judge and the Manitoba Court of Appeal ruled that Steele's threat to use a gun did not amount to attempted use of violence. He was sentenced to eight years in prison.

The high court rejected the lower court views in a decision released Thursday.

"All threats of violence are themselves violent, even though the seriousness of the violence may be quite limited," the unanimous court ruling reads.

"The Court of Appeal’s approach ... would result in untold difficulties for trial judges seeking to establish the elusive dividing line between threats that are inherently violent and those that are not."

The Supreme Court ordered that Steele be assessed for dangerous or long-term offender status. The ruling pointed out the designation is not automatic. There are "a number of procedural steps," including a psychological assessment.