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 narrativeuntil it was too lateTrials 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 ahugebacklogbefore 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.
“Not only is this a concern with the possibility of misidentifying someone and leading to wrongful convictions, it can also be very damaging to our society by being abused by law enforcement for things like constant surveillance of the public”
– Nicole Martin, Forbes contributor
Star Trek. Back to the Future. District 9. I, Robot. These are only a few examples of films that have relied on biometrics – more commonly referred to as Facial Recognition – as a theme for entertainment. All are fiction based and while you may have thought of biometrics as a tool used by elusive government agencies like the FBI and CIA, that isn’t the case at all. Advancements in biometric technology have been seized upon by various law enforcement and government agencies across Canada – creating serious concerns from privacy and civil liberty advocates, and of course, criminal defence counsel.
TheCalgary Police Service began using Facial Recognition technology in 2014. The system they use, known as NeoFace Reveal, works by analyzing an uploaded image and translating it into a mathematical pattern known as an algorithm. The image is then logged in a database and used for comparison against other uploaded images.
The Toronto Police Service hopped on board too. They reported uploading 800,000 images into their Repository for Integrated Criminalistic Imaging, orRICIby 2018. Their use of biometrics began with a trial in 2014, and in 2018,the Service purchaseda system at a cost of about $450,000. Between March and December of 2018, the Toronto Police Service ran 1,516 searches, with about 910 of those searches (or 60%) resulting in a potential match. Of those potential matches, approximately 728 people were identified (about 80%). There were no statistics provided in relation to ethnicity, age, or gender, however,research has raised concernsabout disproportionate effects of biometrics as it relates to people of color.
Manitoba Police do not currently use biometric technology as an investigative tool, although the idea wasfloatedaround in 2019 after the commission of a report concerning growing crime rates in Winnipeg’s downtown core. The Provincial government in Manitoba went so far as to suggest that this technology could be used to identify violent behavior – which sounds a lot like active surveillance, an unethical use of biometrics, which demonstrates one of the most profound concerns surrounding use of this technology. And while it is only a matter of time until the Manitoba Police do use this technology,many retailers in the province are already using it.
At home here in British Columbia, the Vancouver Police Department denies using Facial Recognition technology as a mechanism to investigate crime – in fact, back in 2011,they turned down ICBC’s offerto assist in identifying suspects involved in the Vancouver Stanley Cup Riots with the aid of their software. The office of the BC Privacy Commissioner confirmed that any use of ICBC’s facial recognition data by the VPD would amount to a breach of privacy for its customers.The office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada has been keeping track since at least 2013 –yet, there is little regulation of the use of biometrics in public and private sectors.
The same cannot be said for the RCMP in British Columbia, who, as recently as two weeks agorefused to confirm or deny use of biometrics as an investigative tool,but questions have been raised as to whether or not the RCMP is a client ofClearview AI, a facial recognition startup pioneered by US citizen Hoan Ton-That. Clearview’s work has not gone unnoticed – Facebook and Twitter have issued cease and desist letters, making it very clear that they do not support Clearview’s objectives. Google issued a cease and desist letter as well – however, their position on biometrics is fuzzy – especially since they are trying to make advancements in this area as well. So far, though, they have come under fire for their tactics and the results that have been generated.
The Canadian Government’s position on the use of biometrics is established on their website.When you submit your biometric information at Service Canada (for example), your information isn’t actually stored there, rather, it is sent to the Canadian Immigration Biometric Identification System, where it will remain for a period of 10 years. Further, your biometrics information will be shared with the United States, Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. And yes – you can refuse to provide this information – but it will likely put a kink in your travel plans.
One important factor to consider about all of these agencies and their use of biometric technology is that this tool was never intended for use as active surveillance, or a method to intervene in incidents of crime in real-time. Whether it is a violent assault, sexual assault, theft under or over $5,000, murder or kidnapping, biometrics is an “after the fact” investigative mechanism. If used ethically and within parameters that preserve the privacy of all citizens 100% of the time, perhaps there would be no need for alarm – but that is incredibly unlikely. As more agencies begin to use this technology, the lack of regulatory oversight is bound to create an enormous pervasion of your privacy – and you may never know about it.
The Vancouver Police Department announced that it will be using a new form of intelligence to stop crime before it happens.
No, it isn’t the formation of the Psychic Task Force. It isn’t any sort of “Big Brother” surveillance method (I think) – rather, the VPD has declared it will be the first law enforcement agency in Canada to utilize a “crime prediction model” that will tip officers off to property-crime offences before they happen.
Unsurprisingly, the public has been given very little information about what this new tool is able to do. So far, all we have been told is that it is a computerized program that was apparently very successful in its 6 month pilot project.
The program identifies both residential and commercial areas that display a high-likelihood for property crime. Surveillance areas are set up within a 100-500 meter perimeter, and officers are then dispatched to those areas for visible public presence.
The presence of police, of course, acts as a deterrent for thieves and vandals.
Interestingly enough, this comes as a further development to the 2015 crime mapping tool developed by the VPD. This interactive map is available to the public, for use by anyone interested in learning more about which areas in Vancouver are deemed higher risk. While many people attribute
While this may seem like a weak method of combatting serious and ongoing theft and vandalism, preventative measures are only deemed necessary once an issue has spiralled out of control.
Charges that police hope to see a reduction in as a result of this new preventative measure:
Break and Enter
Break and Enter to commit an Indictable offence
Theft under $5,000
Theft over $5,000
Possession of stolen property
It isn’t unusual to see “petty” crimes, such as minor theft, escalate into more serious situations that can include violent offences as well – for example, a man breaks into a vehicle looking for valuables, but the owner of the vehicle happens to come down to his car as the crime is in progress. An altercation ensues, police attend, and the charges include break & enter, theft, AND assault. By preventing the theft, the entire situation could have been avoided.
Ideally, this tool will aid police in preventing some crimes from happening, but realistically, crimes will still occur in the areas that aren’t padded by police presence.
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Dialogue surrounding mental illness echoes from the walls of nearly every courtroom across the country, which won’t come as a surprise to anyone. When dealing with an Accused person, both Crown and Defence will investigate what their client’s state of mind was like during the commission of the offence – it speaks to intent, which is a very important component in analyzing the intricacies of criminal behavior.
If Crown Counsel proceeds by way of Indictment (as opposed to summarily), the Accused will have the option of having their case heard by a Judge and Jury. If they so choose to have a Jury, members of the public will receive a summons to attend Jury Selection. Some will be chosen, and some will be dismissed. All who are chosen to sit on the jury will not have a say in what their role will be – they are bound by civic duty to fully participate.
Lengthy criminal trials are not uncommon – Robert Pickton’s Trial in 2007 lasted nearly a year, with lawyers calling 129 witnesses, and generating over 1.3 million documents. 129 individuals providing testimony, often gruesome and violent in nature, falling on the ears of 12 every day citizens, none of whom requested to put their lives on hold for a year. Jurors are required to view photo and video evidence, regardless of how brutal those images may be.
But, what happens to jurors once the Trial is over? One would assume that they gladly return to the nuisances of the life they had before the Trial. Sadly, however, many never return to their normal lives.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is often associated with mental illness – however, this is not a fact. PTSD is a psychiatric injury. After repetitive exposure to traumatic situations, the human psyche may succumb to the disturbance. This is rarely immediate – recurring nightmares or overwhelming thoughts are normal to a point. Fresh events remain fresh in our minds.
It is the fog, cotton-in-your-ears feeling, and anxiety that will indicate the onset of PTSD weeks or months after the trauma has occurred. It can be a very isolating and numbing experience – and for whatever reason, societal stigma or taboo, people tend to carry a lot of shame with their PTSD diagnosis. And it is no different for jurors like the ones who sat on Pickton’s jury.
After hearing weeks of testimony, a juror can feel a genuine, bona fide connection with the victim(s). This is amplified when the victim’s family and friends are present for the Trial. Huge internal conflict can erupt when a juror must balance their responsibility and duty to the Court with their own morals and values. This internal back-and-forth is another burden, on top of what they have seen and heard, that they will be left to deal with on their own when jury duty is over.
So what responsibility does our government have to jurors afflicted with PTSD as a result of their participation at Trial? It would not be absurd to consider them as victims of crime. As such, they should have access to every single resource that is made available to the victims of first instance.
Last month in Ontario, the provincial government began offering free counselling for juror members, available either at the end of the coroner’s inquest, or at the end of the Trial. Only time will tell how receptive jurors are to the program, which sadly, hangs on the willingness of individuals to fight against PTSD and its crippling side effects.