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 theCanada Evidence Actis 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.
Whenever incidents relating to terrorism in Canada hit the news, the eyes of Canadians widen with revolt. Recent headlines elicited a similar response, with a healthy dose of confusion and curiosity added to the mix.
On September 21, 2020, criminal charges were announced against 25 year old Ontario resident Shehroze Chaudhry – but not due to allegations of committing acts of terrorism. Rather, Chaudhry has been charged under Section 83.231(1) of the Criminal Code– perpetrating a hoax regarding terrorist activity:
83.231(1) Every one commits an offence who, without lawful excuse and with intent to cause any person to fear death, bodily harm, substantial damage to property or serious interference with the lawful use or operation of property:
(a) conveys or causes or procures to be conveyed information that, in all the circumstances, is likely to cause a reasonable apprehension that terrorist activity is occurring or will occur, without believing the information to be true; or
(b) commits an act that, in all the circumstances, is likely to cause a reasonable apprehension that terrorist activity is occurring or will occur, without believing that such activity is occurring or will occur.
Chaudhry was a frequent guest on an award winning New York Times podcast known as“Caliphate”. He spoke, in gruesome detail, of his time as an ISIS executioner in Syria, among other things. But the charges levelled against him assert that his personal experiences as an ISIS soldier are fabricated.
While the NYT claimed to have verified his role in ISIS, he gave conflicting accounts to CBC, even going so far as to say he would take a polygraph to prove he had never killed anyone. He likely thought this would absolve him any criminal liability relating to terrorism offences in Canada, but the charges against him refute this misconception.
The details released from the police don’t specify if any other person was harmed or killed due to the alleged yarn by Chaudhry, but they will play a determinative role if he is convicted. The sentences range from a fine and imprisonment in a provincial correctional institution if prosecutedsummarily, to life imprisonment should Crown proceed by indictment.
Chaudhry’s case demonstrates that Canadian jurisprudence condemns all activity relating to terrorism – whether it’s the real deal or not.
On March 18, 2020, the BC court system responded to the coronavirus pandemic swiftly and without hesitation, reducing operations by the likes of which criminal counsel simply hasn’t seen before. Once it was confirmed how rapidly COVID19 spreads, the crowded confines of publicly accessed courtrooms were immediately deemed inappropriate – dangerous even. Since courtrooms often yield a congregation of some of society’s most vulnerable people, it made perfect sense to act defensively. These decisions, and many others effecting the justice system, were made only one week after the World Health Organization declared a global pandemic on March 11, 2020.
Unfortunately, there was a noticeable absence of urgency when it came time to protect the vulnerable inmate population overcrowded and totally confined within the walls of Mission Institution.
“In the worst-case scenario, CSC will need to order more body bags and find cold storage to stack up the bodies of those whose lives will be lost that could have been saved” – Justin Piche, criminologist, Criminalization and Punishment Project at the University of Ottawa
On March 31, 2020, federalPublic Safety Minister Bill Blair recommendedthat the Correctional Service of Canada (“CSC”) immediately consider the release of non-violent inmates to mitigate the unavoidable reality that the virus could, and would, devastate the wellbeing of prison populations. His recommendation came on the heels of the CSC announcing the first two positive COVID-19 cases in federal institutions in Quebec.
On April 4, 2020, the CSC announced 4 confirmed cases at Mission Institution, leading to a lockdown of the facility.
By April 8, 2020, there were 11 confirmed cases, all inmates. Nearly one month had passed since the WHO declared a global pandemic.
By April 18, 60 inmates and 10 staff tested positive, and the CSC marked its first coronavirus related inmate death, exactly one month after the courts effectively shut down.
By April 25, 2020, 106 inmates and 12 correctional officers were confirmed to be infected, representing the largest outbreak in the Canadian Correctional System. On this date, the CSC advised that all inmates at Mission Medium Institution had been tested, but in any event, new cases were continuing to be discovered.
While disturbing, none of these developments are surprising. The largest incidence of outbreaks has been at long-term care homes – combining close quarters, limited mobility, and care-workers employed at more than one facility is a recipe for disaster when it comes to COVID-19, a pathogen that spreads and infects without discrimination. The same vulnerabilities exist within the correctional system, where they are intensified. Inmates and corrections staff are simply unable to practice crucial social distancing. Personal protective equipment for inmates has not been prioritized as it has in other sectors, despite these individuals being at a much higher risk of getting sick.
The CSC responded to COVID-19 by prohibiting visits to inmates, temporary absences, work releases, and inmate transfers between correctional facilities. While these steps likely helped to curb the spread of the virus, as a whole, they are grossly inadequate. Without a vaccine, social distancing remains our greatest defence against the virus. For the inmates at Mission Institution and those incarcerated at facilities across Canada, proper protective equipment is hard to come by, but hope is even harder.
A Justice of the BC Supreme Court refused to label Allan Schoenborn as a “High Risk Offender”, meaning that designation has still not been successfully applied since it was introduced by the Harper Government.
Allan Schoenborn was found guilty, but not criminally responsible for the murders of his 3 young children, whom he believed had become victims of sexual abuse. Psychiatrists who assessed him unanimously agreed that he had been suffering from delusions and other symptoms consistent with a schizoaffective type disorder. As a result, it was determined that he did not bear legal culpability for his actions.
Although he was found to not be responsible for his actions, he was remanded to Colony Farm, a Forensic Psychiatric Hospital, for an indefinite period of time (as is standard with all NCR offenders).
The purpose of the Not Criminally Responsible, High Risk Offender legislation is aimed at designating offenders found not criminally responsible by reason of mental disorder as “high risk” if it can be proven that they pose a serious threat of inflicting grave physical or psychological harm to another person.
This legislation is strictly applicable to offenders found not criminally responsible – in essence, it is punitive legal recourse only available for individuals who have already been deemed as severely mentally ill.
In her decision, Justice Martha Devlin determined that there was no reason to believe that Schoenborn met the criteria necessary for a High Risk designation. She noted that his current mental condition, along with the opinions of the experts overseeing his care, does not reflect him posing a serious threat to the public.
If the designation had been granted, it would have excluded Schoenborn from receiving escorted outings into the community, and would create a 3 year period between his review board hearings, as opposed to 1 year as is current procedure.
One of the biggest concerns we see in this legislation, is the effect it may have on offenders who should be entering a plea of not criminally responsible. The problem is that if an offender is likely to meet the criteria of a High Risk Offender once being deemed NCR, they may opt to take a determinate jail sentence simply because a High Risk Offender designation could seriously impede their ability to regain freedom from the psychiatric facility where they are being held. If an Accused person is told “plead guilty and you’ll get 10 years in jail” or given the option of “if you establish a NCR defence, there is a risk of a High Offender Designation, and I can’t tell you with any certainty whatsoever when, or if, you will ever be freed”, which option will likely seem more attractive?
Interestingly enough, Mr. Schoenborn’s high profile case was basically singled out by Stephen Harper when the “High Risk Designation for NCR Offenders” legislation was tabled in 2013. The decision by Justice Devlin demonstrates why impartiality and transparency are vital to the survival of judicial process: although the facts related to this case are heinous and disturbing, a path has been carved for Mr. Schoenborn, and Justice Devlin refused to hinder his progress. His NCR designation was not established in haste, and each step of his treatment since that time has been methodical and closely monitored. He requires intensive treatment and rehabilitation in order to, one day, have an opportunity at freedom.
Navigating through the criminal justice system as an Accused person is an intimidating experience. It is compounded when you are dealing with a mental illness. We are experienced in liaising with clients who suffer from severe mental health problems. We understand that compassion, respect and understanding are of fundamental importance when confronting with these issues. 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. Contact our office today for your initial consultation.