A man who pleaded guilty last year in relation to a fatal collision in Abbotsford is hoping to have that plea revoked on the basis that he no longer believes he committed a criminal act.
Michael Larocque, 48, appeared Wednesday in Abbotsford provincial court for a hearing on the matter.
He admitted that he was the lone occupant of a vehicle on Oct. 5, 2012, on the Sumas Way/Highway 11 bypass when he fell asleep at the wheel, crossed the centre line and smashed head-on into a car being driven by Eileen Kleinfelder, 67, of Chilliwack.
Kleinfelder was pronounced dead at Abbotsford Regional Hospital.
Larocque was charged in October 2015 with criminal negligence causing death, and pleaded guilty in March 2018 to the lesser charge of dangerous driving causing death.
A sentencing hearing took place in which both lawyers presented their submissions, and all that was left was for the judge to give her ruling on Larocque’s sentence.
On the day of sentencing – Aug. 20, 2018 – Larocque informed the court that he wanted to revoke his guilty plea.
The judge then ruled in April of this year to allow a hearing on the matter.
At this week’s hearing, Larocque’s lawyer, Julie Grenier, said her client accepted he was guilty when he made his plea in March 2018.
“He does that because he was driving the car that crossed the line that caused the accident that caused Ms. Kleinfelder’s death,” she said.
Larocque suffers from sleep apnea, and Grenier said he was “shocked” at his sentencing hearing to listen to the Crown describe his choice to not pull over when he was getting sleepy on the day of the crash as a “marked departure” from what a “reasonably prudent” person would do.
Grenier said Larocque felt that Crown “mischaracterized” his decision to drive – he normally had his business partner take the wheel but was alone that day – and to not pull over when he grew weary.
“That’s what Mr. Larocque heard, and Mr. Larocque says, ‘That’s not me. I’m prudent. I’m a regular guy. I’m not trying to kill anyone, and I’m not a stupid man. I’m not reckless,’ ” Grenier said.
She said it was at that point that his belief about his guilt “crystallized” and he no longer felt that he had committed a criminal act.
Larocque testified briefly at the hearing, affirming that his guilty plea had been voluntary and under the guidance of his previous lawyer.
He said he felt fine to drive on the day in question.
“I feel that I didn’t do anything criminally wrong. Yes, I was in an accident – I fell asleep at the wheel and somebody died – but I wasn’t going out to intentionally hurt anyone that day,” Larocque said.
In his submission at the hearing, Crown lawyer Tyler Dotten challenged that statement.
“For driving offences under the Criminal Code, they are most often committed by people who didn’t set out that day to do what they did, but in fact, took terrible risks with the lives and safety of others on the highway,” he said.
Dotten argued that Larcoque’s guilty plea would have been discussed in detail with his lawyer – who had decades of experience – including the possibilities that could arise both from going to trial or pleading guilty to a lesser charge.
“Mr. Larocque saying, ‘I don’t feel guilty. I don’t feel like I’ve reached the standard of recklessness to be deserving of criminal justice,’ that was a decision that was to be made when he made a guilty plea,” Dotten said.
He said Larcoque’s shift was “simply him changing his mind” to avoid jail and hardship for his family – in particular, his mother, who lives with him and can’t afford to live in their current residence on her own.
Dotten said there should be “exceptional circumstances” – such as a procedural error or a possible miscarriage of justice – for a guilty plea to be set aside.
“There has to be something for the court to hang its hat on beyond a sincere belief in being not guilty,” he said.
The judge will give her decision on the matter on June 3 in Abbotsford. If she revokes the guilty plea, a date for trial will be set. If she allows the plea to stand, Larocque will be sentenced that day.