Thirty-one alleged members and associates of the Hells Angels motorcycle gang arrested on drug charges in a massive dragnet two years ago have had their cases thrown out of a Quebec court because of unreasonable delays before trial.
Quebec Superior Court Judge James Brunton granted part of a defence request for a stay in proceedings against the defendants Tuesday, telling a Montreal courtroom that anticipated delays would have prevented the men from having fair trials.
Defence lawyers insist it could take 10 years before the last of the accused goes to trial, and Brunton's decision was the right one.
"He sent a message that you have to be realistic about the capacity of the courts to react," said Daniel Rock, a lawyer on the defence team.
The 31 defendants were among 156 people targeted in Operation Sharqc, a police investigation into biker gang-related murders and drug dealing across the Eastern Seaboard that took 17 years to complete.
Brunton stressed that he was not releasing the men over questions of guilt or innocence — but because the justice system is simply unable to provide the labour needed to try the 156 suspects rounded up in 2009.
Quebec prosecutors opted for mega-trials to process the defendants faster, with as many as 36 defendants per trial, with four judges and separate juries presiding over court proceedings simultaneously.
But there aren't enough high-security courtrooms nor judges available, Brunton said.
The judge criticized the provincial justice minister and the director of criminal prosecutions for simply assuming the justice system could handle such a large and complex case.
Brunton's ruling is disappointing to the team of Crown prosecutors working the case, said lawyer Gaston Langevin.
"There are other avenues possible, instead of just a stay of procedings. One of them would have been to put some of them back on the street – with conditions – and not just go for a stay of proceedings."
Police and prosecutors collected millions of documents, including wiretaps and video surveillance during their investigation.
Charges against the total 156 accused include murder, gangsterism, drug trafficking and conspiracy.
About 2,200 witnesses have been called and if evidence contained on computer discs was printed out, it would stretch 145 kilometres.
Defendants charged with murder are due to stand trial first, because of the gravity of the accusations.