A B.C. man falsely accused and subsequently acquitted of sexual assault has been repeatedly questioned and detained at the U.S. border for being a sex offender.
Leonard Walker, 61, blames the RCMP for not flagging his acquittal in the criminal records database it shares with the United States, where his charges are recorded.
"They feel they can keep this information online indefinitely," Walker told Go Public. "But I’m innocent — the file should be thrown out and destroyed."
Walker is one of 36,880 people acquitted of crimes in Canada in 2009/2010 who could be facing similar problems.
Whenever anyone is arrested and fingerprinted in Canada, a "criminal record" is automatically put in the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC). American officials can access those records – indefinitely – even if the person is aquitted.
Detained and questioned
"That may be a good thing in some cases," Walker said, "but in my case, I’ve been kept at the border for 2½ hours, while the customs guy asked me about the sexual assault case in Canada."
Walker was acquitted in B.C. provincial court in November on four counts of sexual assault. The allegations were brought by a former employee who accused him of trying to kiss her and touching her buttocks at work.
Walker, who owned a small business at the time, said the woman made the accusations immediately after he fired her and reported her to police for allegedly stealing from his business.
"I think it’s the worst thing that ever happened to me. It makes me feel dishonoured," Walker said, adding his accuser never spoke to police "until I made charges of theft against her."
Despite having no convictions, Walker said, U.S. officials still treat him like a criminal.
"Every time I cross the border there are always questions. I have to get out of my car sometimes. Sometimes I have to go in the office," Walker said. "And this is all related to a woman that lied to the RCMP."
There is a ban on publicizing details of the judge’s ruling, because it was a sexual assault case. However, in a lawsuit Walker has since filed against his accuser, he said the court acquitted him based on her inconsistencies and false testimony.
"I told [a border officer] I was acquitted," Walker said. "I even came down a couple of weeks later and gave him the judge’s decisions in writing, but he wasn’t interested. It’s on the file and it’s on the file permanently."
Walker, a dual citizen, said the only reason border officials reluctantly let him cross is because he has a U.S. passport. "They can detain me but they can’t stop me," Walker said. "They still think I am a sex offender."
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He’s said he's worried about having a permanent record in the U.S., which could hurt him doing business there, or getting a U.S. police clearance, which he may want to have to emigrate and retire to another country, such as Panama.
"If you’ve got a sexual assault case, that information now gets transferred to Interpol and the FBI — so there’s another two government agencies that have access to your files — and I'm told those records won't be erased," Walker said.
"There are probably hundreds of people who have this same problem. You may get a job over the border one day. You can’t get that job because you have a black mark on you, so that ruins your life."
The RCMP said when someone is acquitted or convicted in Canada, the court sends that information to the local police agency in charge of the case. That information is supposed to be sent to the RCMP in Ottawa for input into the criminal records database.
RCMP admits problems
Chief Supt. Chuck Walker confirmed acquittal information isn’t always sent, and there is a two-year backlog in Ottawa in getting it into the system.
"It’s not mandatory that police agencies contribute to the RCMP repository on criminal records," said Walker, who is in charge of CPIC.
However, he said, that acquittal information is usually sent. The backlog in Ottawa is the biggest obstacle.
"I think you can expect ultimately that we will solve the backlog challenge, but the criminal record backlog is not a new thing. It’s something we have been dealing with for a number of years. At this point in time, with the level of automation that we have available to us, [inputting data] is a very labour intensive undertaking that requires human resources — skilled human resources."
B.C. criminologist David Bowman, who has studied 150 recent cases where Canadians were denied entry to the U.S. because of a criminal record, said "Canada transmits only about two thirds of the picture – the arrest and the charge."
Of the 150 cases, he said, 16 per cent of them had never been convicted of a crime. "These people were denied simply on an arrest or a charge that never ended up in a conviction," he said.
For example, he cited a Canadian student – acquitted of drug possession in 2010 – who was turned away at the border this year. Bowman said it took several months to get enough paperwork to persuade U.S. officials to change their mind, while the student missed out on educational opportunities.
"[The border] is becoming more integrated and with the more digital informational capacity it’s going to be a growing problem," Bowman said. "A lot of it relates to fingerprint records. If you’ve been arrested and fingerprinted and photographed, a lot of that is tied in. The new upgrades to passport security have a lot to do with it as well."
The RCMP's Walker said the force is working on improvements.
"We are working very hard to put solutions in place that will meet the needs of Canadians — both on the civil side and the criminal record side — and I know that in the future things will continue to improve," Walker said.
In the meantime, he said, people in Walker's situation can ask the RCMP for a certified record showing they were acquitted. He acknowledged that can take months, but said it can be expedited upon request.
"I certainly can understand the frustration [of acquitted people], and I don’t know that I can really respond to it other than to say that we are responsive to request to update records."
Walker has filed formal complaints against several RCMP officers and is suing them for damages, claiming the sexual assault investigation was shoddy and one-sided. Charges were never laid on the theft allegations against his former employee.
Langley RCMP spokeswoman Holly Marks said she couldn’t comment on Walker’s complaints.
"There was a thorough investigation," Marks said. "The Crown decides how many or what charges should be laid."
That's cold comfort to Walker.
"I’m so humiliated. I’m disgraced and I’m discredited in another country," Walker said. "It’s been very stressful on my wife and daughter, all because [authorities]
believed this woman’s story."