Penticton judge not thrilled by lawyer submissions over spree of dangerous driving incidents

Judge balks at light sentence

A Penticton judge was underwhelmed by lawyers' jail time recommendations for a man accused in a dangerous driving spree, asking Crown and defence to better defend their stances before passing sentence.

John Marshall Szanto appeared via video from custody in provincial court Monday to learn his fate after pleading guilty to multiple charges involving dangerous driving.

Szanto is no stranger to trouble with the law, possessing a lengthy rap sheet involving violence, theft and flight from police. He also pleaded guilty in 2015 to seriously injuring a man at a party by smashing a mug into his face and punching him.

Court heard Monday that Szanto has recently been behind a spree of concerning incidents involving vehicles.

In March 2022, as Crown counsel told the court, a man in Naramata called police to report a suspicious vehicle, a U-Haul-type vehicle, that he believed was associated with a theft from his property. He jumped in his own truck and followed the vehicle into Penticton, all while on the phone with dispatch.

Around Haven Hill Road, the man claims the vehicle purposefully rammed him, then continued to flee to a location on Dynes Avenue, when the driver jumped out and got into a white Chevrolet Malibu and took off.

The Naramata man was able to grab a license number, and describe the man as "very large." Given the description and the plate number police suspected it may be Szanto.

Police were dispatched and a constable observed the Malibu around Highway 97 and Riverside Drive, and pursued.

At Riverside Drive, the police officer reports, the Malibu at a very high speed blew through a red light as it continued on the highway. The officer turned their car lights on, but given the dangerous speed, which was estimated at around 200 kilometres per hour, pulled off and saw the Malibu "lose control" and cause other vehicles to swerve, nearly causing a multi-vehicle crash.

The Malibu continued towards Summerland. Summerland police were notified and attempted to find it in the area, but were unsuccessful.

Officers attended the Dynes Avenue residence where the U-Haul had been dropped off, and located a sheath for a long knife, a vial police described as consistent with drug use, and a pair of glasses. After obtaining a warrant to search inside, they found a wallet with John Szanto's identification, and his fingerprints in the vehicle.

In early April, police noticed Szanto driving a Chevrolet Malibu and attempted a traffic stop. Szanto fled at a high rate of speed on Skaha Lake Road, what the police described as well over 100 kilometres per hour in a 50 kilometre per hour zone.

Given the traffic and the dangerous speeds, police did not attempt a chase.

In August 2022, a man living in Penticton reported two men, one very large, stealing an EZ Haul cart from his property. Security footage and community tips helped police identify one of the men as Szanto.

A red pickup associated with the theft was confirmed to have been lent to Szanto by a friend during the approximate time of the theft, but she had been told he was using it to pick up a bed.

In September, Szanto was taken into custody on other matters, then charged with these.

Szanto told the court that after six years clean and sober he relapsed from addiction, and now just wants to "get this stuff dealt with and get back to life that I learned I could have when I was on parole."

Crown and defence told Judge Shannon Keyes they agreed a cumulative six month sentence for the incidents — 45 days each for the March and April incidents, 90 for the August incident — was warranted, which, given credit for time already spent behind bars, would amount to time served.

Keyes was not having it.

"I'm not able to understand how the absolutely ferociously dangerous driving down Highway 97 with people dodging to the left and right and taking evasive measures so that they didn't die in a head-on collision, with a person who's got a prior flight from police officer ... even if he had no record at all, I'm having a hard time seeing 45 days. I was expecting to hear something in years. Not days," Keyes said.

She offered counsel some time to review and make further submissions to explain their reasoning.

"I'm not seeing 45 days on those circumstances ... somebody is going to have to justify this to me in a way that I should understand."

The matter was adjourned for continuation on Jan. 31.

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