British Columbia

Accused criminals go free due to shortages of sheriffs, court staff

'Distressed' B.C. judge stays drug trafficking charge stayed because there was no sheriff to escort the accused from a holding cell to the courtroom.

B.C. justice minister reveals 7 suspects freed last year and confirms accused drug trafficker released Friday

B.C. sheriffs hand out warnings to the public about staff shortages in front of Vancouver's provincial courthouse in March 2016. (CBC)

In the latest twist on chronic court staff shortages, B.C.'s justice minister has revealed charges in seven criminal cases had to be stayed last year because of unacceptable delays.

Suzanne Anton made the confession in the B.C Legislature during question period Monday, after being grilled by the NDP opposition about another criminal charge that had to be thrown out in Victoria on Friday.

In that case, Justice Robert Johnston entered a stay of proceedings against accused drug dealer Richard D'Allesandro, citing a shortage of sheriffs and blaming "a lack of provincial will to provide necessary resources."

'Completely unacceptable'

Johnston said he was forced to stay the drug trafficking charge against D'Allesandro, 37, because there was no sheriff to escort the accused from a holding cell to the B.C. Supreme courtroom.   

"Crown is ready to go. Defence is ready to go. The court is ready to go. Mr. D'Allesandro is in custody in this building, but he is not able to attend because there are no sheriffs to bring him to court," he said in an audio recording of the court proceedings. 

A B.C. Supreme Court judge in Victoria has thrown out a drug charge due to the fact that there was no sheriff to escort the accused from the holding cell to the courtroom. (CBC)

"It is completely unacceptable. I am not prepared to conduct this trial in Mr. D'Allesandro's absence. He has a right to be here and he should be here."

The judge went on to say that it's "a matter of great distress to not only myself but my fellow judges — criminal matters, important criminal matters are delayed starting because of a lack of staff whether it's sheriffs, clerks or otherwise. That is unacceptable."

D'Allesandro has a previous conviction for trafficking, according to court records.

Number of sheriffs to double 

Anton described that situation as "a bit of an anomaly." 

"This was a case where the accused person had not appeared on Monday, came back in custody during the week. It was a late scheduled case and when the court opened on the Friday morning, there was not a sheriff available, though interestingly enough, I'm told there was a sheriff a short time later, but at that time there was none so the case was dismissed," she said. 

B.C. Justice Minister Suzanne Anton says seven charges have been stayed this year because of court delays. (B.C. Legislature )

Anton said more sheriffs were on the way.  

"I'm doubling the amount of sheriffs that will be trained this year and next year, so that we do have good resources in the system," she said. 

Forty-eight recruits are set to graduate this year and 48 more next year. 

Sheriffs provide courtroom security, handle prisoners and oversee the accused. Without them, there is no security in courtrooms.

But later in question period at the B.C. Legislature, the Opposition NDP said sheriffs in B.C. are down from 500 in 2012 to 400 now.

'How many drug dealers will be set free?': NDP

NDP Justice Critic Mike Farnworth blamed the government's choices for the shortage. Bruce Ralston, NDP MLA for Surrey-Whalley, asked "how many gang members and drug dealers will be let free before (Anton) takes action?" 

In response, Anton stated charges in seven cases were stayed last year because of delays.

"That's out of about 60,000 cases in the system, for a sense of proportion," Anton told the Legislature.

"No one wants to see a case stayed because of delay. But let me assure the House ... that number is down significantly over the years. The number has gone down steadily."

Anton did not reveal the number of accused criminals freed due to court delays in previous years. 

Concerns over the impact of court staff shortages are not new. Last March, sheriffs took to the streets outside Vancouver's provincial courthouse warning that the lack of sheriffs was causing delays and backlogs in the courts.

They blamed low wages — compared with other policing forces — for the low recruitment and retention rates.  

Safety of the public at risk, says BCGEU

Their union expressed the same concerns Monday.

"They need to address the wage gap between B.C. sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies in B.C. — that's the primary driver here. Many sheriffs are trained up and move over" to other, higher paying law enforcement jobs, said Dean Purdy of the B.C. Government and Service Employees' Union (BCGEU). 

Dean Purdy, spokesperson for the B.C. Government Employees Union, warns that public safety is at risk due to the shortage of sheriffs providing security at B.C courthouses. (Mike McArthur, CBC)

And Purdy had a dire warning.

"We're saying — and I think the judges and the court staff will agree with us —  that the safety of judges, court staff, the public and other sheriffs is at risk right now because of the shortage."

Contacted by CBC News, the office of the chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court said Justice Christopher Hinkson will be discussing the sheriff shortage with the chief judge of the provincial courts and the chief sheriff in B.C. 

No date was given for that meeting.

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