(This column was published in the North Shore News on July 23, 2003)
Overhaul BC's charge approval system
By Leo Knight
There’s something decidedly wrong when the system is designed to benefit the worst of society instead of protecting the rest of it. That, so it seems, is exactly what the Charge Approval system is doing in this province. It is long past time for Attorney General to take a long, hard look at the situation.
Most everywhere else in Canada, the police investigate crimes, gather evidence and file the appropriate charges, swearing the information is true and correct before a Justice of the Peace or a Judge. Not here.
In British Columbia, the police investigate crimes, gather evidence then submit lengthy reports in the vague hope some pencil-neck in the Crown’s office will see the case as a slam-dunk winner or charges will not be laid. This is called the charge approval system.
The law is written so that the measuring stick is whether there is a prima facie case to answer at the bar of justice. The government policy says there has to be a “substantial likelihood of conviction” before Crown will approve a charge - a significant difference. Unfortunately, this leads to political interference, subjective analysis based on reasons other than justice often having everything to do with budget trimming and did I mention political interference?
The most recent slap in the face was received full force by the Abbotsford Police last week.
During the dinner hour, an APD member spotted a stolen ’92 pickup and began following the vehicle while mustering the troops for support. A trap was set to stop the nose picker, a frequent player in these types of events.
The perpetual car thief hit the first spike belt laid out to stop him and, damaged, was looking for an out. He saw a 16 year police veteran laying out a second spike belt. Instead of surrendering, the habitual offender took direct aim at the officer trying to lay out the belt.
Pointing the stolen vehicle straight at the police officer and matting the accelerator sending the truck hurtling towards the cop, forcing the officer to leap away to avoid becoming a hood ornament.
Once the good guys arrested the car thief for the umpteenth time, Abbotsford Police issued a press release saying they would recommend a charge of attempted murder, which certainly seems reasonable and in fact is what occurred. But then the morally bankrupt Charge Approval system kicked in. The Crown on Friday announced they would only proceed with charges of Dangerous Driving and Drive While Prohibited.
Big deal. Another waltz for the wicked through the justice system.
In an editorial in The North Shore News, commenting on the ongoing trial of Mickie Smith for the murder of North Vancouver resident Wally Dekanich, the paper questioned if it was a contract hit, then why was there no one else in the dock along with Smith, the alleged shooter.
The simple answer is there should be. The RCMP identified the individual who physically paid for the contracted killing and presented the evidence. Crown rejected it.
Another aspect was explained by a veteran North Van RCMP officer who said the Crown don’t understand the way things are on the street and just because a particular individual hasn’t been charged before is no reason not to approve a charge now.
“Sometimes”, said the veteran officer, “you’ve got to charge them with what you can prove today and get them into the system, not wait for the perfect case tomorrow.”
A Vancouver Police Sergeant expressed his frustration to me last week on this issue. He sent me an email shortly after he heard about the Abbotsford decision.
“Believe it or not, the frustration in law enforcement with Crown is even higher than when you were on the job. At least when Bob Wright was in charge there was some degree of aggression in them.”
(Note: Bob Wright is the former Vancouver Regional Crown counsel now tasked with the prosecution of the Air India trial.)
“Now they look for absolutely any way to get out of laying a charge in the first place. If you back them into a corner they lay the lowest charge possible and will stay it in a heartbeat on the flimsiest excuse. Basically, with the odd exception, unless you bring them a case that prosecutes itself they are just not interested.”
“What’s required is not only doing away with Charge Approval but a major clean out of the mandarins in the AGs Ministry and replacing them with people who at least have a sense of outrage when someone tries to kill a policeman. The only thing that seems to budge them at all is when the media exposes something and that only works on a case-by-case basis.”
For obvious reasons, I won’t identify the writer, but he is absolutely correct in his view. With the courts’ sentencing leaving so much to be desired, I hardly think the answer is to approve fewer and fewer charges.
The criminals are committing their crimes in ever-increasing numbers and the police are doing their level best with their Sisyphean task. It’s high time the Attorney General stepped up to the plate.