In the wake of Vancouver’s riots, B.C.’s populist premier Christy Clark was quick to read the public pulse. “We will hold you responsible,” she said the morning after the mayhem. “You will not be able to hide behind your hoodie or your bandana.” A special team of experienced prosecutors, she said, would work with police to ensure swift, severe punishments for rioters—jail time, she made clear, sounding more like an Old West sheriff. The public roared its approval. The riots touched a raw nerve in Vancouver, where 19 of every 20 residents want the troublemakers prosecuted to the full extent of the law, according to a new poll by Angus Reid.
The reality of prosecuting the mess, however, will soon sink in. The premier is “out of touch with how our courts are operating,” Vancouver criminal defense lawyer Jason Tarnów tells Maclean’s. There is “no way” riot cases will get preferential treatment just because politicians are asking for it; that would be unconstitutional. Rioters will be processed by a justice system hobbled by judge, sheriff and prosecutorial shortages and a legal-aid system that no longer meets even basic needs, according to a recent report. “Justice will not be swift,” adds criminologist Robert Gordon, of Simon Fraser University. “This will be a long, drawn-out process.”
A week before the riot in fact, five Vancouver trials were ordered shut down after judges deemed courtrooms unsafe to proceed due to a shortage of sheriffs. More than 2,000 criminal cases, meanwhile, are at risk of being quashed over delays. In the past year, a range of cases, from drunk driving to drug dealing have been tossed because it took up to two years to get to trial. “It takes 12 to 18 months to get a single-day trial in Vancouver right now,” says criminal lawyer Michael Shapray. “What will happen if police suddenly lay 300 criminal charges? How are you going to find the judges, sheriffs and prosecutors for this?” In an eye-opening report released last fall, the provincial court warned that 17 new judges must be hired just to bring B.C. back to 2005 levels and slow the backlog. Instead, B.C.’s spring budget approved cuts totalling $14.5 million to the judiciary, court services and prosecution services. (In the wake of the riots, funding for sheriffs was quietly restored.)
But the issue isn’t solely administrative. Although this will surely go down as the world’s best documented riot, some of the hundreds of thousands of photos submitted anonymously to police may be inadmissable as evidence. “In court, you have to be able to call a witness who took the video or picture,” says Shapray. The photo of the so-called “kissing couple” offers a perfect example of how deceptive a picture can be without video evidence or witness testimony. Was it staged? What were they doing? News sites buzzed until the couple was identified.
Further, we may be putting too much faith in facial-recognition software: it was designed to sift through well-lit, frontal, ID-quality images, not dark, grainy cellphone photos. Brock Anton, who became an Internet meme after bragging about his alleged exploits on Facebook—apparently admitting to burning a police car and assaulting an officer—may next become an example of someone who gets off scot free, unless credible witnesses come forward to testify, says Shapray.
Precedent offers little comfort to outraged citizens. Of the more than 1,100 people held over the Toronto G20 weekend last summer, only 317 were ever charged. And of those, 58 per cent had their charges withdrawn, stayed or dismissed. The rioters who took part in Vancouver’s violent anti-Olympic protest last year have all, meanwhile, escaped criminal punishment.
Still, some rioters are receiving punishment far worse than anything the courts might dole out for their crimes. Robert Snelgrove, 24, was captured on film walking out of Sears with a handful of face creams. The next day, the Coquitlam, B.C., native—then fully sober and utterly mortified—turned himself in, and returned the stolen items. No charges were laid. Police took a statement and sent him home. But the Internet mob, who’d pasted his image to shaming sites, was just getting going. By evening, he’d been identified and his cell number and work address were posted online. Then came the messages: “Die scumbag,” plus a rash of homophobic insults. (Snelgrove is gay.)
The mob was relentless. “It was message after message”—voice, text and Facebook messages, says Snelgrove. For the first three days he didn’t eat anything. “I felt sick. I felt too ashamed to go outside.” Customers called his manager to complain, and he was suspended without pay, and expects to be fired.
In a world where a reference check begins with a Google search, the mob has given many students and young adults a life sentence. There is a reason, however slow and unwieldy, that the administration of justice has been delegated to the state. Internet justice, unlike the real kind, is swift and severe—and not necessarily right or fair.