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Judge wrong not to sentence engineer to jail for sex assault: Appeal Court

The Court of Appeal of Quebec is seen in Montreal, Wednesday, March 27, 2019. The Quebec Court of Appeal has overturned a conditional discharge given to an engineer who pleaded guilty to sexual assault and voyeurism and sentenced him to 12 months in jail. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

QUEBEC — A Quebec judge's widely criticized decision to give an engineer who pleaded guilty to sexual assault a conditional discharge was wrong, the province's Court of Appeal said Wednesday as it instead imposed a 12-month sentence.

The court said the trial judge made errors in determining Simon Houle's sentence on charges of sexual assault and voyeurism that diminished the gravity of the crimes and Houle's level of responsibility. 

"The crimes committed by Mr. Houle are serious. He abused the vulnerability of the victim and seriously violated her physical and sexual integrity as well as her privacy and dignity," the three-judge Appeal Court panel wrote.

Quebec court Judge Matthieu Poliquin's decision last June to grant Houle probation and a conditional discharge — in part because a conviction would have made it hard for Houle to travel for his job as an engineer — caused an uproar in the province.

The province's prosecution service appealed the sentence.

In its ruling, the Appeal Court said the difference between a conditional discharge and the sentences that had been imposed in similar cases was too large and risked undermining public confidence in the justice system.

Houle pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting his victim while she was sleeping and photographing the assault. The original ruling found that the victim woke up to the flash from a camera and found that Houle had placed his fingers in her vagina.

The Court of Appeal found that the trial judge "lost sight" of the crime of voyeurism when sentencing Houle.

"By photographing the most intimate parts of his victim's body without her knowledge, M. Houle violated a sphere of her private life that is essential for her to maintain her human dignity," the court wrote, noting that the photos were on Houle's phone for 44 days. 

The Court of Appeal also found the trial judge erred in the way he considered an admission by Houle, made during a psychological evaluation, that in 2015 he had touched another woman's genitals over her clothes while she slept.

While the trial judge was correct to see the admission as a sign of Houle's openness and the seriousness with which he was taking his psychological treatment, it was also evidence that his crimes were not "one-time events in his life," the court wrote. The judges did, however, conclude that Houle represents a low risk to reoffend.

The court sentenced Houle to 12 months in jail for sexual assault and two months for voyeurism, to be served concurrently. He will also be on probation for one year. The requirement for a $6,000 donation to a community organization that was part of the original sentence was removed.

In November, prosecutors charged Houle with breaching the conditions of his original sentence after a Quebec woman accused him of making gestures of a sexual nature toward her in Cuba.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 25, 2023.

— By Jacob Serebrin in Montreal. 

The Canadian Press

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