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Thousands at Riot Broke Law, Few Convictions Are Assured

Even photos and admissions on Facebook don't prove guilt, says defence lawyer.

By Tyler Harbottle 22 Jun 2011 |

Tyler Harbottle is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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When premier says 'fullest extent of law', does that mean this guy? Photo courtesy refreshment_66 from Your BC: The Tyee's Photo Pool.

An image depicts a man, apparently in his 20s, wearing a Vancouver Canucks-branded T-shirt. With his arms spread, one hand grasping a hockey stick, the other open-palmed, he is gesturing to an off-camera crowd. The muscles in his forearms, chest and face appear flexed, his mouth gaping and his eyes wide.

Behind the man, shards of glass cling to a store-front window frame, its floor-to-ceiling panes all but completely shattered.

With thousands of similar riot-snapshots populating social media sites, it's not a hard image to conjure up. But did the man smash the window? Did he just happen upon the scene after the fact? Or was he wielding the hockey stick to fend off would-be looters?

B.C. Crown prosecutors will have to answer those types of questions if they plan to convict people apparently caught in the act during last week's post Stanley Cup finals riot.

About 3,500 emails flooded Vancouver Police Department inboxes following the riot, many of which contained photo or video evidence and thousands of links to Facebook profiles and YouTube clips, according to a VPD press release.

"The question that I would have is, what does the picture show?" says criminal defence lawyer Michael Mines. "It may show somebody standing in front of a broken window cheering with a certain expression on their face but that doesn't necessarily say they've committed a property crime."

"From a still picture it's hard to tell beyond a reasonable doubt what's going on," says Mines.

But what if the man depicted in the image went home that Wednesday evening, logged on to Facebook and proclaimed that he indeed smashed some windows or "flipped a car and punched a pig and stole $2,000 worth of ephedrine," as The Tyee reported one elated rioter posted to his Facebook profile?

Not even that guarantees a conviction, says Mines.

"It strikes me that there are a lot of bright, computer-savvy people that can make it look like someone is posting under their own name, when in fact they're not."

"Joe Blow that appears to have admitted to a crime but later denies they're the one that actually posted the message, then the Crown has to prove beyond a doubt that it was them," says Mines.

"In order to really prove that, the police have to get a search warrant and a production order to analyze the content of the computer to try to prove that that person was the only person that had access to the computer. The burden is always on the Crown."

'Fullest extent of the law': premier

B.C. Premier Christy Clark said last week that authorities would pursue all those "involved" in the riots.

"There is a mountain of evidence out there against you and it is coming into police every single day. It is coming in and we are going to find you, we are going to charge you and we are going to prosecute you to the fullest extent of the law," said Clark in a statement made the day after the riot.

A recent Angus Reid poll suggests that most British Columbians agree with Clark.

Ninety-five per cent of polled Metro Vancouver residents said they agree with the following statement: "The people who took part in riots should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

But in this instance, says Mines, that would require thousands of arrests.

"There are sections in the Criminal Code about rioting and once the police tell you to clear, if you're in the area and if you don't have a justifiable excuse, presumably you're guilty of that section," says Mines.

The Criminal Code of Canada defines a riot as "an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously."

And "everyone who takes part in a riot is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years," according to Section 65.

"What are the logistics of arresting thousands of people after the fact for just being there? I don't know," says Mines.

Given this broad definition of law breakers involved in a riot, The Tyee called Premier Clark's office yesterday to ask if she would clarify who she intended to include in her vow to prosecute "to the fullest extent of the law." The call was not answered by deadline time.

'We will find you': police chief

VPD arrested 117 people so far, 15 of whom turned themselves in, according to a press release issued Monday morning.

Many charges are pending, but VPD has only recommended formal charges against eight people so far, including aggravated assault, possessing a weapon harmful to the public, mischief and participation in a riot, break and enter, theft, arson and assaulting a police officer.

A dedicated Integrated Riot Investigative Unit, numbering more than three dozen, is now pouring over the "mountain of evidence," and will be making more charges in the coming days, according to the announcement.

In the meantime, VPD Police Chief Jim Chu hopes more will turn themselves in.

"If you come in voluntarily, you can do so discreetly and at a time that is convenient for you. If you wait until we find you -- and we will find you -- we will arrest you in a public manner suitable to the public crimes you have committed."  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice

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