How would you feel if your DNA was used to convict a family member?
Last week, news consumers were divided on the use of this tactic to identify and arrest Ibrahim Ali who was recently convicted of the murder and sexual assault of a 13 year old victim in 2017 in Burnaby.
Investigators went undercover at a 2018 Kurdish New Year Celebration handing out samples of tea in hopes of collecting DNA from their suspect – and it worked. Police were able to obtain a sample from a relative of the suspect. The sample was analyzed and compared against the DNA sample collected from semen found inside the victim, and the results were conclusive: the sample collected at the Kurdish New Year Celebration belonged to the brother of the whomever’s DNA was found inside the victim. This critical development resulted in the positive identification of Ibrahim Ali, his subsequent arrest and ultimately, his conviction.
However, certain civil liberties advocates have decried this investigative strategy, claiming it infringes on the privacy rights of people who have their DNA seized when they themselves are not suspected of any wrongdoing. Further, genealogical DNA testing is not frequently accessed or available technology in Canada. As a result, the analysis is often done in the United States, further stoking concerns from privacy experts. Police are required to maintain a “chain of custody” for all exhibits in a case. When the exhibits are forensic material, it is especially important that the chain of custody be meticulously maintained. This becomes increasingly difficult when exhibits leave the custody of Canadian agencies. Further, labs in the United States (and beyond) may not be accredited to the same standard as a Canadian lab. And of course, when private and sensitive material exists in the database of outside agencies, there is always a security risk.
Genealogical DNA testing and its use in criminal law is still very much in its infancy – in Canada, anyways.
This investigational technique gained notoriety in 2018 when it was used to identify and convict the Golden State killer in California, and made headlines again in December 2022 when it was used to identify Bryan Kohberger, currently awaiting trial for the murder of four college students at the University of Idaho.
Canadian Courts and legislators are no doubt paying close attention to developments in the field of Genealogical DNA testing. It is more important now than ever – in the age of ever-advancing scientific exploration and sophisticated tools like AI – that the Courts, and the law, can maintain pace.
In May of 2022, the Supreme Court of Canada determined that stacking parole ineligibility for multiple murders is unconstitutional under Canadian law.
In 2011, Stephen Harper’s government passed legislation relating to sentencing provisions in the Criminal Code that would allow Judges to impose parole ineligibility far beyond the minimum of 25 years on the offence of First Degree Murder, pursuant to Section 745.51.
Since that time, several sentences have been passed in imposing parole ineligibility, with the most lengthy sentence being no parole eligibility for 75 years in the case of Douglas Garland, who was found guilty of murdering two adults and their grandson. Garland appealed his sentence to the Alberta Court of Appeal, where it was upheld.
It was the case of the Quebec mosque shooter, Alexandre Bissonnette, that resulted in a unanimous decision from all nine Supreme Court Justices to rule that the sentencing provision violated Section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, granting protection against cruel and unusual punishment. Bissonnette pleaded guilty to 6 counts of First Degree murder and six counts of attempted murder, and the Crown had asked for a parole ineligibility period of 150 years – 25 consecutive years for each of the six people he murdered – which would have been the harshest sentence handed down in Canada since the abolishment of capital punishment. The presiding Judge declined, and instead sentence Bissonnette to 40 years before he could apply for Parole. Criminal defence counsel appealed to the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2020, and the sentence was reduced to 25 years. The Crown then appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, which led to the landmark decision to cap parole ineligibility at 25 years.
With this decision, those incarcerated under the stacked ineligibility provision are seeking to have their sentences reduced, which has caused a great deal of alarm to the public. It is important to remember that someone convicted of first degree murder will have eligibility at Parole after 25 years – but that does not guarantee their release by any means. The Parole Board looks at many factors when determining whether or not to grant Parole, including the actual offence itself, criminal and social history, rehabilitation efforts, and remorse. Their review of an individuals history when considering release is thorough and rigid. Victim impact statements from family members and loved ones are also taken into consideration.
The decision from the SCC included the following passage:
“This appeal is not about the value of each human life, but rather about the limits of the state’s power to punish offenders.”
This is a reminder that the Court’s decision to limit parole ineligibility is not meant to diminish loss of life, or to favour offenders. It reaffirms that our government, including judicial institutions, must abide by limits to ensure that Canada remains a fair and just society for all.
If you have been charged with a criminal offence in British Columbia (including, but not limited to: Richmond, Vancouver, Surrey, Delta, Langley, Coquitlam, New Westminster, Abbotsford, Victoria, Nanaimo, Kamloops, Kelowna) or the Yukon Territory (including but not limited to: Whitehorse, Dawson City, Watson Lake, Haines Junction, Mayo, Old Crow) contact experienced counsel at Tarnow Criminal Law without delay.
The internet is a precarious place. We buy, we sell, we talk – and we post. And while that’s all fine and good, it isn’t without consequence. Facebook launched in 2004, and since that time Canadian Courts have addressed and analyzed evidence obtained through Facebook and other social media platforms.
Recently, in a 2-1 decision, in R. v. Martin, 2021 NLCA 1, the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal overturned a lower court’s decision deeming Facebook screenshots as inadmissible. In a 30 page decision, the Court of Appeal explained how the Provincial Court Judge (“PCJ”) had erred in their analysis of the rules of authentication in relation to the proposed electronic evidence.
The case involves allegations that the Accused, Mr. E. Martin, made threats against the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (police), via pictures and written communication on Facebook. He was charged with being in possession of a knife for a purpose dangerous to the public peace, being in possession of a rifle for a purpose dangerous to the public peace, and uttering a threat to members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.
The police had attended Mr. Martin’s residence one evening to follow up on a domestic disturbance complaint. The investigation went no further than a brief attendance at the Accused’s residence, which resulted in no further action being taken.
The investigation with respect to the charges in this case began when the police received an anonymous tip that the Accused had posted several pictures on Facebook indicating he planned to harm police.
It was the evening following their first visit to Mr. Martin’s residence that the police received the anonymous tip that indicated he had posted a menacing caption, directed at police, combined with photos that included firearms. The police again attended Mr. Martin’s residence, but were clearly not welcomed. They returned to the detachment and tried to view Mr. Martin’s Facebook page, but were unable to view any content. The police then contacted the anonymous tipster to ask if they would email pictures of the postings, which they did. In total, six screen shots were forwarded. The “screenshots” depicted an individual in various poses, kneeling with and holding various firearms that included a rifle and a long gun. The words “Ed’s Post” and “Ed Martin added 4 new photos” appeared as “banners” over the photos, in the typical Facebook font and symbolism.
These screenshots were at the centre of the Crown’s firearms and threats charges against the Accused. A Voir Dire was held to determine the admissibility of the screen shots. Ultimately, the PCJ declined to admit the photos as evidence, reasoning that these items had failed to be authenticated. The PCJ opined that since the anonymous tipster had not been called to give evidence, no one could testify that the screenshots were not altered or changed in anyway. The Court went further to say that there had been nothing to substantiate that the Accused even had a Facebook account, and even if they did, there was no way to determine conclusively that the Accused had been the one to author the posts depicted in the screenshots.
The Accused was convicted of being in possession of a knife for a dangerous purpose (which was found on him at the time of his arrest) but was acquitted on the charges of being in possession of a rifle for a dangerous purpose to the public peace, and uttering a threat to members of the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary. The Crown appealed the PCJ’s decision to rule the screenshots inadmissible – which brings us to the Court of Appeal’s analysis of the issue.
The Court of Appeal was thorough and careful to reiterate its explanation of a key component in their analysis: the threshold for admissibility of authenticated electronic documents under the Canada Evidence Act is low, and can be established by both direct and secondary evidence. The proposed electronic evidence must be capable of supporting a finding that the evidence sought to be admitted is what it purports to be.
The Crown submitted that the PCJ had been erroneous in ruling that the screenshots were not authenticated by the evidence adduced at Trial. At the Voir Dire, 10 witnesses, all police officers, were called including the officer who began the investigation and obtained the screenshots. This police officer testified that he was very familiar with the layout of Facebook, and the screenshots were consistent with what he knows of Facebook. While not accepted by the PCJ as an acceptable form of authentication, the Court of Appeal disagreed and suggested that the officer’s testimony was evidence that the screenshots were authentic. Further, the police officer testified about identifying striking similarities between what they saw when they were in attendance at the Accused’s home – clothing, personal items, layout of the residence – that mirrored what they had seen in two of the screenshots. The Court of Appeal found that this information aided in the authentication of the screenshots, and determined that it was not necessary to have the anonymous tipster’s testimony verifying their authenticity. No evidence to the contrary was introduced by the Defence.
The Court of Appeal stressed that authenticity does not determine authorship – meaning that although the evidence is admissible, it is not determinative of who actually authored the post. As a result of their analysis, the Crown’s appeal was allowed and the case was returned back to Provincial Court for further proceedings. As is standard practice, the Court of Appeal did not comment on what probative value the evidence may have.
The introduction of digital evidence in criminal proceedings will continue to create a myriad of issues for the courts to determine. The Charter was not written with these intricacies in mind – and the responsibility lays not only with the courts, but in the hands of criminal lawyers across the country. If your case involves digital evidence (social media postings, text messages, etc.) it is imperative that you contact experienced and seasoned counsel without delay. We are licensed to practice in British Columbia, the Yukon Territory and the Northwest Territories.
As we’ve spoken about in previous posts, overrepresentation of Indigenous offenders in the Canadian Correctional System is both disturbing and rampant – making up approximately 30% of all inmates – despite accounting for only 5% of Canada’s population. Within the past decade, the Courts have recognized that this overrepresentation encompasses many factors – including the historical discrimination of Indigenous people in the judicial system.
Back in 1999, the decision of R. v. Gladue by the Supreme Court of Canada served as confirmation that the circumstances of Indigenous offenders are unique, and must be taken into consideration when the Court contemplates the issues of bail and sentencing. This jurisprudence was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court of Canada in the case of R. v. Ipeelee in 2012.
The preparation of a Gladue Report requires a thorough review of the facts of the case and the personal history and circumstances of the Accused, coupled with their Aboriginal heritage, and how the former is influenced by the latter. The assessment of these elements and the authoring of the report must be completed by an individual who is educated and intimately informed of the special challenges that Indigenous people face in the judicial system. These reports are commonly ordered by Courts all across Canada – with the exception of Nunavut, where a Gladue report has never been tendered in Court.
Criminal defence counsel in Iqaluit, Nunavut (where 85.9% of the population identifies as Indigenous) recently requested that the Court Order a Gladue Report for an Indigenous offender whose case is proceeding to sentencing. The presiding Judge, Chief Justice Neil Sharkey, declined to do so – explaining that there are no Gladue Report writers in the Territory. Although there are Writers available in the South (we commonly engage their services for clients in Richmond, Surrey, Port Coquitlam and many other jurisdictions in the Greater Vancouver Area, in addition to Whitehorse, Dawson City, Yellowknife and other communities in the Yukon and Northwest Territories) Chief Justice Sharkey opined that these Writers are not familiar with the Inuit community, as they only author reports for First Nations and Métis offenders. The Court went on to explain that the Accused should not face further delay while awaiting the preparation of a Gladue Report. While it is true that the Government of Nunavut has not created a program within the Territory that trains and employs individuals qualified to prepare Gladue Reports, it is also true that a push to create such a program has never been prioritized. Experienced criminal defence counsel will always advocate for Gladue Reports where they are applicable, as we are well apprised of the value they provide not only to the Accused, but to the Courts and all those who are effected by their proceedings. And while the production of a Gladue Report can certainly cause delay in the case proceeding to sentencing, its influence on the Court could result in a lesser sentence, nullifying any delay created during its production.
The irony lays in the fact that R. v. Ipeelee – the case to reaffirm the Court’s obligation to take judicial notice of the unique circumstances of Indigenous offenders and the importance of Gladue considerations – involves an Indigenous person from none other than Iqaluit, Nunavut. The case was heard before the Supreme Court of Canada on October 17, 2011 – almost exactly 9 years prior to the date of this post.
It is not the sort of irony that leaves you in awe of such a coincidence – rather, it is the kind that leaves you wondering: if the decisions of highest Court in Canada, the loudest and most authoritative body of our legal system, cannot provide a voice to those who need it most….who can?
Section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms grants all Canadians the fundamental right of freedom of expression – but as one young man in Markham, Ontario learned this week, the Charter also permits the enforcement of reasonable limits on expression.
18 year old Tristan Stronach, a grade 12 student, was charged under section 372(2) of the Criminal Code – making indecent communications – after his instructor had to conclude an online lesson after Stronach allegedly made racist remarks about the black community. The nature of the alleged comments, while not described specifically, has caused some to ask: why isn’t he being charged with a hate crime?
The answer is: because there is no specific “hate crime” offence in the Criminal Code.
Section 372(2) of the Criminal Code reads as follows:
(2) Everyone commits an offence who, with intent to alarm or annoy a person, makes an indecent communication to that person or to any other person by a means of telecommunication.
“But what about hate speech?”
Section 319(1) of the Criminal Code reads as follows:
Public incitement of hatred
319 (1) Everyone who, by communicating statements in any public place, incites hatred against any identifiable group where such incitement is likely to lead to a breach of the peace is guilty of:
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.
Wilful promotion of hatred
(2) Everyone who, by communicating statements, other than in private conversation, wilfully promotes hatred against any identifiable group is guilty of
(a) an indictable offence and is liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years; or
(b) an offence punishable on summary conviction.
While it has been made clear that the allegations relate to racist comments towards a single identifiable group – the black community – charges under this section were likely not approved because the evidence is unable to support a conviction. The comments were not made in a “public” place, and while they were made in the virtual presence of a group of individuals, they did not promote hatred – i.e., the comments weren’t made in such a way that they would result in other individuals following suit and creating a breach of the peace as a result.
Notwithstanding the above, if the accused is convicted of making indecent communications, the court will consider to what degree bias, prejudice, or hate played a role. These are aggravating factors that could result in a harsher sentence. Through this legislative structure, these aggravating factors can be considered for a variety of offences – assault, theft, murder, and so on.
As Canadians, we are very fortunate to live in a country that allows us to speak, move, and exist freely – but cases like this are a reminder that equality reigns supreme.