COVID-19 UPDATE FROM TARNOW CRIMINAL LAWLearn More

Body Worn Cameras: What’s The Hold Up?

Over the last couple of months, there has been outcry from the public urging the use of BWC’s (Body Worn Cameras) for Canadian law enforcement. Although initially in response to the growing unrest relating to police brutality in the United States, there are echoes of abandoned intentions from Canadian officials dating back at least a few years. 


Back in 2015, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada (“OPCC”) issued a publication regarding the use of BWC by police, in collaboration with privacy agencies in Alberta, New Brunswick and Quebec. The remaining Canadian law enforcement agencies from other provinces and territories acted “in consultation”.

For reference: according to the CBC, there were a total of 2 incidents involving the death of individuals at the hands of law enforcement in New Brunswick between 2012 and 2014, 12 incidents in Quebec, and 14 incidents in Alberta. Interestingly enough, British Columbia (on par with Quebec at 14 deaths) and Ontario (with the highest rate of police violence resulting in death in the country at 25 deaths between 2012 and 2014) were only acting in consultation.

The report hails the effectiveness of BWC to capture high quality images, videos, and audio recordings – so effective, in fact, that the OPCC had grave concerns regarding their ability to capture material that could jeopardize the privacy of innocent and uninvolved bystanders.

The report goes on to tout the value of BWC for evidentiary purposes, including analytics so sophisticated that the material obtained would likely be suitable for biometric comparison – aka, facial recognition

There is no arguing the fact that the use of BWC by police has implications for the privacy of citizens in their everyday lives – especially since once fitted, citizens would likely expect on-duty officers to have their devices on a continuous basis as opposed to intermittently.

Benefits of BWC include the ability to review interactions between police and the public, recording communications between the police and suspects in the course of an investigation, identifying potential witnesses, and of course recording interactions between police officers. Many criminal cases involve evidence obtained through the use of dash cams, which provide audio from inside a police cruiser and video from the perspective of the driver. The effectiveness of this technology loses value when the investigation takes place outside of a police vehicle, as the audio often fails to capture intelligible communications between police and a suspect, or between officers themselves. Although the dash cam is kept running, the audio portion is often useless when the interactions between police and a suspect take place outside the vehicle, and the windows of the police cruiser are closed, or if the police/suspect leave the immediate area where the audio is successfully captured.

The report indicates that while continuous recording would undoubtedly provide a greater level of accountability for the actions of police, the threat to personal privacy reigns supreme:

From an accountability perspective, continuous recording may be preferable because it captures an unedited recording of an officer’s actions and the officer cannot be accused of manipulating recordings for his or her own benefit. However, from a privacy perspective, collecting less or no personal information is always the preferred option”

In 2014, the Edmonton Police concluded a pilot project regarding the use of BWC by its officers. The conclusion?:

“The cameras had no effect on police use-of-force incidents and said there was no statistical difference in resolving police complaints”

According to an analysis done by CBC, there were a total of four deaths between 2012 and 2014 relating to officers of the Edmonton Police Service. By comparison, there were 9 deaths in the same period relating to officers of the Toronto Police Service. The results of the Pilot Project may have seen different results in a different jurisdiction.

The Edmonton Police explained that in addition to being ineffective to expose cases of police misconduct, the related expenses were simply unrealistic. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not the cost of the devices themselves, but the expense to store and manage all of the material collected: somewhere between 6 and 15 million dollars over five years, which also includes hiring personnel qualified for the job. 

Finding the balance between accountability, transparency and oversight of police against the protection of privacy for Canadian citizens is a legitimate and profound task – one that cannot be taken lightly. As the calls for BWC in Canadian law enforcement grow louder, and as Canadians revisit the reality of what it is to be privileged in this country, we can only hope that the values of dignity and equality are recognized as being more valuable than the cost of the equipment that very well could save lives.

Access to Justice: An Essential Service

High on the list of things that have changed due to COVID-19 is our perception of what truly qualifies as an essential service – the transportation of goods by freight haulers, grocery stores and pharmacies, waste management and sanitation, and the list goes on. Service providers in these sectors are now being recognized for their significant contributions to our communities. In recent weeks, safety measures have been formulated and established, such as the installation of acrylic screens to act as a barrier between cashiers and customers, temporarily suspending the use of cash, and constantly monitoring supply stocks and evaluating the best methods to ensure that protective personal equipment is available to those working in healthcare.  

But what about the justice system?


On March 18, 2020, court operations were abruptly suspended in BC. Mass adjournments of almost all trials, for those detained and those awaiting trial free in the community, has created uncertainty for accused persons and for their counsel. It has also highlighted systemic flaws that have been dismissed for far too long.

The Court of Appeal of BC was the first to announce that, beginning May 4, 2020, appeals (all appeals, not just those deemed urgent) would be heard using the platform “Zoom”. A notice from the Chief Justice of British Columbia elaborated further and noted that the courts would use Zoom only until the government supplied a “permanent, enterprise videoconferencing solution”, lending likelihood to the idea that some of the interventions relied upon during the COVID-19 pandemic could become permanent adaptations.

COVID-19 emphasized the court systems’ vulnerability to interruption. At some point along the line, preference to proceed with business as usual was prioritized over adjusting to function optimally in a society that is increasingly reliant on digital mechanisms.

Currently, much of the paperwork involved in criminal proceedings is processed manually by court services staff (with the exception of some electronic documents) at the registry. Rules for fax filing vary by registry, which often creates confusion for counsel.

Here are some examples of what modernization could look like:

Change

Effect

Online court schedule for all levels of courtCounsel can manage their court schedule with more flexibility and can coordinate appearances in various jurisdictions with other counsel to maximize efficiency
Video-conferencing from correctional facilities to the office of counsel and to the courtClients have more personal interactions with their counsel. Visits to the correctional centre can be limited (not replaced completely). If those in custody can appear exclusively by video, it reduces the number of inmates being transported via vehicle, saving time, money, and sheriffs’ resources
Enhanced online filing for court documentsFewer issues with errors relating to form. Court services staff spend less time on data entry manual processing.
Digital court filesCourt services staff can access all materials in one system and forward materials as needed to judicial staff. Storage of materials digitally saves an enormous amount of space. Archived files can be easily obtained rather than being stored “offsite”. Enhanced security for all files. Counsel could access court documents, such as a Record of Proceedings, online instead of having to make requests to court services staff
Digital disclosure transferAll disclosure would be digitized, allowing law enforcement, crown counsel, court staff, and defence counsel to exchange documents without delay. Significant reduction in paper usage and courier/postage costs.

While other sectors prioritize adopting innovation, the court system has all-but ignored important opportunities for tech reform. Budgetary limitations are a frequent excuse. And of course, cost is an important factor – but it should not override value. The technology exists and has the potential to be extremely advantageous in the courtroom, and is often utilized more frequently in more remote jurisdictions such as Prince George, BC and throughout the Yukon Territory. Due to the logistical difficulties associated with residing in a remote location, video-conferencing is often used at trial for out-of-town witnesses.  

Before the era of social distancing and COVID-19, there seemed little reason to forge ahead towards modernization with any sense of urgency – the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” comes to mind – but now, we simply don’t have a choice. 

The Wheels of Justice Turn Slowly

It has been over one month since the Courts of British Columbia significantly curtailed operations in an attempt to combat COVID-19.


For many of those who work in the legal field, it was this development that made it all real. It quickly became clear that the novel coronavirus had the potential to spread quickly, and the confined space of a courtroom serves as ideal grounds for transmission.  

Despite the coronavirus acting as a proverbial wrench in the gears of justice, the judicial system continues to putter along. This is largely due to increased utilization of technological tools like video/conferencing for court appearances and swearing of affidavits, and relaxing restrictions when it comes to fax/electronic filing of court documents.

Video conferencing isn’t new to the BC court system. As early as 2002, Judges across the province agreed that the technology improved procedural efficiency by facilitating witness testimony from distant locations and allowing interim appearances by video involving counsel from other jurisdictions. Judges also noted the value of video- conferencing for inmates at correctional centres – defeating the purpose of transferring multiple inmates from various correctional centres to various courthouses. The bottom line is that modernizing certain aspects of the criminal justice system makes sense financially and systemically – and events like COVID-19 demonstrate how it can have occupational benefits too.

At present, there is enormous value in modernizing certain judicial processes for two reasons – one, to limit face-to-face interactions between judicial staff, defence counsel and an Accused person, and two, to mitigate the consequences of what can only be described as colossal delay.

In reducing operations, the majority of criminal trials scheduled between March 18, 2020 and June 1, 2020, have been adjourned generally to dates in June and July, 2020. Cases that are deemed to be of an urgent nature will be able to proceed, although in a procedural sense, things will look different – for example, witnesses who would ordinarily appear before the Court to give evidence may be authorized to testify via video. For the most part, however, trials will proceed at a date that is likely much later than originally anticipated.

 

The situation is more grim for accused persons in custody awaiting their trial. Inmates are, of course, among the most vulnerable to contracting the novl coronavirus – a concern that was a topic of discussion before the courts closed – but didn’t really become part of the actual narrative until it was too late Trials for accused persons in custody have also been adjourned (for trials scheduled between March 23 and May 16, 2020).  Sentencing hearings and bail hearings for accused persons will proceed. This could be positive – for some, it might result in their immediate release from the correctional system. For others, further incarceration for as little as an additional 90 days in custody will be devastating, a potential death sentence. 

It is far too early to gauge how overwhelmed the court system will be at the return to business as usual – but when you consider that there was a huge backlog before COVID-19 shut it all down, it seems only reasonable that extreme measures – such as implementing night/weekend court, and permanently authorizing certain modernization measures – will need to be taken to truly return to normal.

MEDIA RELEASE – HOPCRAFT, Michael – AKA “The Reptile Guy”

In early July, the BCSPCA announced charges against Mr. Hopcraft under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act and the Veterinarians Act after viewing a video posted on Mr. Hopcraft’s “Wild Education” Facebook page showing him relieving a blood python of a bowel obstruction.

Contrary to what the BCSPCA has alleged, this procedure did not cause the python any harm, pain, nor discomfort. In fact, the python was relieved of a 6-month build up of excrement in its bowel track, which was surely causing it incredible discomfort.

Today, the python is alive and well, as confirmed by its happy owners.

While Mr. Hopcraft takes these charges very seriously, we take the position that this is nothing more than the BCSPCA’s attempt to, once again, slander Mr. Hopcraft in the Court of Public Opinion and try to put him out of business.

As many of you know, Mr. Hopcraft has considerable knowledge and more than 18-years experience in handling and caring for exotic animals. For years, Mr. Hopcraft has been educating the general public on television, in your children’s schools, and at your community events. Over these years, Mr. Hopcraft has consistently demonstrated that his primary objective is to ensure the well-being of his animals, many of which come to him as neglected or abandoned pets.

Furthermore, since the BCSPCA publicly announced charges against Mr. Hopcraft, numerous veterinarians in British Columbia have reached out and denounced the BCSPCA’s allegations towards him. Their consensus is that the python suffered no harm, and that if the python were to be sedated in any way (which the BCSPCA suggested ought to have happened) that the python could have experienced complications and/or died.

Mr. Hopcraft will meet these charges in a court of law and until his trial date he is to be presumed innocent.

Finally, Mr. Hopcraft, and his Wild Education organization, will proudly continue to care for its animals and he looks forward to continuing to educate you all about them.

Jason Tarnow

Legal Counsel to Michael Hopcraft

Basic Info: Brushing up

                     It is commonplace that first-time offenders rarely have a good understanding of the judicial process. Although it would be fantastic if everyone was fully apprised of their rights and obligations under Canadian law, it is unrealistic. However, I hope that this post will answer a few very common questions we receive on a daily basis.

Lets get started.

Q –     I’m looking at my Court documents, and it appears that I am being charged by someone named Regina. Who is she? I don’t even know anyone by that name?

A –     Regina is the latin word for Queen. As Queen Elizabeth II is the reigning Monarch,  Regina is the term used in legal context. When a male takes the throne, the term will change to Rex, the latin word for King.

Q –     My wife and I got into a really heated argument and the police were called. I was arrested and charged with assault, and now there is a no-contact order between us. My wife and I met for dinner last night to talk things over, and we agreed that it was silly to call the police. She would like to drop the charges, how can she do this?

A –      In British Columbia, individuals do not press charges, and neither do the police. The police investigate, prepare a report, and recommend charges to Crown Counsel. Crown Counsel then reviews the information and approves or denies charges based on the strength of the evidence. There must be a reasonable likelihood of conviction to pursue prosecution. In short, your wife cannot “drop the charges”. Additionally, since there is a no contact order in place, you cannot contact your wife, directly or indirectly, until the order is lifted. Ignoring the no  contact order could result in a Breach charge, landing you in jail.

Q –     I’ve been charged with an Indictable Offence. Is that a misdemeanor?

A –      The terms “misdemeanor” and “felony” are not rooted in Canada. Those terms are used in the United States. An indictable offence is very serious and carries significantly higher penalties than the less serious “summary offence”. One major difference is that summary offences can only be tried in Provincial Court by a Judge, whereas indictable offences can be tried in Supreme Court by a Judge an Jury. There are also “hybrid offences” which can be prosecuted by summary or indictment – impaired driving is one example. The choice to proceed by indictment is usually because of aggravating circumstances such as a car accident resulting in injuries.

Q –     I was arrested for impaired driving and given a Promise to Appear (“PTA”). Several weeks later, I was contacted by the police who told me that the PTA has been cancelled. Does this mean my charges are dropped?

A –      In short: no. Your PTA was likely cancelled because the police and Crown Counsel  are still in the early stages of their investigation. Once an Accused person has  attended their First Appearance, the judicial-delay clock starts ticking. The Supreme Court of Canada recently advised that proceedings in Provincial Court should run from start to finish in no more than 18 months – this means that you   must be charged, and proceed to trial within 18 months. If the proceedings take   longer than 18 months to be heard, there is probability for the case to be thrown   out due to delay. In Superior courts, the proceedings should be completed within 30 months. So, while your PTA has been cancelled, it does not in any way mean  that you are off the hook. There is no statute in Canada that prohibits the commencement of prosecution of criminal offences. In the United States, there is no statute of limitations on murder, but there is on sexual assaults and other serious criminal offences.

Hopefully the above information has answered a few of your questions, but likely not all of them. Of course, there are many complex questions that deserve a much more thorough explanation, and we are here ready to answer them.

Whether you have been charged with a minor offence under the Criminal Code such as theft under $5,000, assault, mischief under $5,000 or a more serious offence such as aggravated assault, sexual assault, assault causing bodily harm, or murder, it is crucial that you speak to one of our lawyers prior to making any statements to the police (which we will advise you not to do in any event), or anyone else for that matter. Because, although you’ll hear it from the cops first, I’m telling you again: what you say CAN and WILL be used against you.

We are conveniently located in Richmond, B.C. only a few steps away from Brighouse Station on the Canada Line, which brings you from various locations in Metro Vancouver in 20 minutes. We service all areas of the lower mainland (including but not limited to Surrey, New Westminster, Port Coquitlam, North Vancouver, and Abbotsford) the interior of B.C. (including but not limited to Cranbrook, Kelowna, Kamloops, and Salmon Arm), Northern B.C. (including but not limited to Prince George, Prince Rupert, and Quesnel) and in the Yukon Territory where we offer services in Whitehorse, Dawson City, and Old Crow.

Trucker acquitted after 23 kilos of cocaine found hidden in back of truck

On December 3, 2012, Mr. G (name redacted for privacy), owner of the trucking company he was transporting for, was arrested after 23 kilograms of cocaine was found hidden in a secret compartment in his vehicle.

Obviously, this product was not something Mr. G had declared when crossing into Canada – he had advised CBSA that he had just picked up two loads of produce from California and nothing more.

CBSA officers didn’t buy it.

A power drill was used on the exterior front wall of the trailer, and after it had penetrated through the wall of the trailer, it was removed – covered with a powdery white substance, later determined to be cocaine. Mr. G denied all allegations that he was involved in any drug trafficking, and claimed he had no knowledge of the drugs being in his vehicle.

Once drugs were found, the front wall of the trailer was removed, exposing 5 sub compartments, and 23 red bricks of cocaine, weighing 1 kilogram each, appraised at a value of 2 million dollars on the street.

Mr. G was arrested and charged with one count of importing a controlled substance, and one count of possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking.

He was the driver of the truck, the owner of the company, and the lone occupant in the vehicle at the time of his arrest. In acquitting Mr. G, the Judge noted several things of great importance:

1) The case against Mr. G was entirely circumstantial (in legal context, circumstantial evidence requires that an inference be made to determine a conclusion. Direct evidence, such as eye witness testimony, or DNA evidence, does not require that an inference be made). As this comment was made by the Judge, it is safe to assume that there was no physical evidence linking Mr. G to the crime (fingerprints on the drug wrapping, etc);

2) All of the officers who dealt with Mr. G described him as being cooperative, and showing no signs of suspicious behavior. This is crucial to Mr. G’s defence that he was unaware of the contraband in his vehicle. CBSA officers are skilled in identifying suspicious and evasive behavior – their ability to do their jobs effectively depends on it.

3) The Crown’s argument simply did not make sense. The condition of Mr. G’s vehicle (his cargo being in disarray, mainly) is what originally drew suspicion from CBSA. The Judge found that it is unlikely any drug trafficker would exercise such a low level of care and diligence in preparing to cross the border with such a significant quantity of drugs. Had Mr. G known what was truly in his trailer, he likely would have taken much more time to appear organized, and as such, not draw suspicion.

After nearly 5 years awaiting his fate, Mr. G walked out of the B.C. Supreme Court today a free man – something he likely will never take for granted.

The Courts of British Columbia are determined to curb the increasing volatile consequences of drug trafficking. While it has always been harmful to our communities, the number of fatalities associated with illicit drug use is growing ever higher. Our government is now taking a different approach to the problem by focusing on harm reduction for drug users – this includes safe injection sites, and immunity from prosecution for good Samaritans who seek help for drug overdoses. It does not include leniency for drug dealers: see our blog post on this topic.

Lengthy custodial sentences are becoming more and more common. It is increasingly obvious that conditional sentences have not adequately served as deterrents for drug traffickers to cease their illegal activities. Amendments to the Criminal Code in the coming years will likely bring even tougher penalties.

As demonstrated in Mr. G’s case, legal issues related to importing and trafficking are highly complex. A conviction for such a charge will permanently bar you from entering the United States, and will likely result in a host of other negative consequences. It is also wise, when traveling between the USA and Canada, to know what goods you are and aren’t allowed to transfer between borders.

If you have been charged, or if you are under investigation, it is strongly recommended that you contact our office to discuss your options. We are conveniently located minutes from the Brighouse station of the Canada Line, making our office easily accessible from various spots in Metro Vancouver. We are proud to provide services to all cities in the lower mainland including Richmond, Burnaby, Surrey, Langley, Port Coquitlam, Abbotsford, and Chilliwack. We also service residents located in the interior/northern areas of BC including but not limited to Kelowna, Kamloops, Penticton, Fort St. James, and Nelson.