Newspaper article The Canadian Press

High Court Warns against 'Mr. Big' Stings, Says They're Presumed Inadmissible

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

High Court Warns against 'Mr. Big' Stings, Says They're Presumed Inadmissible

Article excerpt

High court warns against police stings

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OTTAWA - Confessions extracted through so-called Mr. Big police sting operations tend to produce unreliable confessions, are open to abuses and must be presumed inadmissible in court, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Thursday.

The decision by the country's highest court calls into question the convictions of Canadians behind bars across the country and has the potential to reduce wrongful convictions, say civil rights advocates and legal experts.

It has also caused the Mounties to review their policies, although they are defending the investigative technique.

In a majority decision, the court ruled that stings like the one used to convict a Newfoundland man of drowning his three-year-old twin daughters are fraught with risks.

Nelson Hart was initially convicted of first-degree murder in March 2007 in the drowning deaths of his daughters, Krista and Karen, in 2002. At his trial, court was told that Hart demonstrated for undercover officers, posing as members of the mafia, how he drowned the girls by shoving them into the waters of Gander Lake, in central Newfoundland.

But the conviction was overturned in September 2012 by the province's appeal court by a 2-1 margin. The ruling questioned the reliability of his confession.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court justices ruled that Hart's confession during the sting operation cannot be used against him should he face another trial.

It will now be up to the Crown to determine whether Hart will be retried. Frances Knickle, the Crown attorney on the Hart case, wouldn't comment Thursday, saying the decision is under review.

The Supreme Court ruled that Hart's charter rights may have been violated and that Canada's legal system does not adequately protect the rights of people who are subject to Mr. Big sting operations.

In its judgment, the court said that prosecutors must prove a Mr. Big confession is admissible by showing it's reliable, and that it won't unfairly prejudice a crime suspect during court proceedings. The Crown must also prove the confession was not obtained via police coercion, or was facilitated due to a suspect's mental health or addiction issues.

The Mr. Big investigative technique involves undercover police officers who recruit a suspect to a fictitious criminal organization while posing as gangsters. The aim is to obtain a confession to a crime.

Leo Russomanno, an Ottawa criminal lawyer, called Mr. Big stings a "made-in-Canada atrocity."

He praised the Supreme Court for making it much more difficult for law enforcement agencies to employ Mr. Big stings, but suggested the justices should have outlawed such procedures outright.

"I wish there was an absolute bar to this sort of stuff -- the risk of wrongful convictions is just too great -- but ultimately the Supreme Court balked at that because this court has a lot of reverence for police investigations," Russomanno said in an interview. …

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