Charges in 4 major VPD drug investigations have been sunk by charter rights violations in past 3 years
Police superintendent denies that 'ends justify the means' for drug unit
Project Trooper, Project Talon, Project Thorne and Project Tent were all major investigations by the drug squad of the Vancouver Police Department. Each one took months to complete and required significant investments of resources and people power.
And yet, in each case, criminal prosecutions have fallen apart because of constitutional violations by the investigating officers.
Defence lawyer Neil Cobb represented the suspects in three of those cases, and he alleges they are "entirely representative of the way this specialized, highly funded unit of VPD officers go about the difficult work of investigating serious drug crimes on a day-to-day basis.
"A culture of 'ends justifies the means' has been noted."
In a statement written on behalf of himself and his partners, Elizabeth Lewis and Karen Molle, Cobb said he believes both the number and severity of charter violations have increased significantly in recent years.
The details of the four major investigations vary, but there are common threads that weave through them — searches and seizures deemed warrantless, questionable surveillance operations, delays in letting suspects contact their lawyers, and failures to take notes or file reports in a timely manner.
As a result, all charges have been either dismissed or stayed against eight people accused of trafficking or producing hard drugs including fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamines. In some cases, other people arrested during those investigations have been convicted at trial.
In each case, judges have been reluctant to exclude evidence of serious drug- and weapons-related crimes, but said the gravity of the charter violations left them with no choice.
In one particularly scathing ruling, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Nigel Kent lamented the abundant examples of "unprofessional conduct" by police, and took the unusual step of ordering that a copy of his reasons be sent to Vancouver Police Chief Adam Palmer.
The VPD officer who oversees these investigations acknowledges that more suspects seem to be walking free because of charter violations, but said members of his team do not believe the ends justify the means.
Instead, they're just scrambling to keep up with court decisions that change the rules of the game, Supt. Mike Porteous told CBC.
"In the past where we had a very good case go to court and have a good likelihood of success, now that case has to be perfect, and it's still no guarantee that we will get a conviction in this environment," he said.
'Sending a message to the police'
Nonetheless, the violations have been serious enough that in his 2017 reasons for judgment, Kent said the chief of police needed to see why he'd excluded crucial evidence.
This was not a routine order.
But Kent said it was clear from officer testimony that members of the drug squad did not fully grasp how they had violated the constitutional rights of suspects, "and they, along with the police department as a whole, may yet remain ignorant of the failings identified by the court."
As a result of Kent's judgment, all charges against the accused were dismissed. Shu Tshung Wong and Lena Truong had been arrested as a result of Project Tent, an investigation into an alleged meth lab in East Vancouver.
"Society has an interest in occasionally sending a message to the police, for the benefit of all citizens, that the ends do not necessarily justify the means and particularly so when the means include the flagrant disregard of constitutional rights fundamental to a free and democratic society," Kent wrote.
The same year, charges were stayed for similar reasons against Soheil Ali-Kashani and Farzad Sadeghi-Amini, two men arrested in Project Thorne, an investigation into an alleged cocaine-trafficking operation.
It happened again this year with Project Trooper, a high-profile, seven-month investigation into an alleged drug ring said to be supplying fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and meth to vulnerable residents of the Downtown Eastside. All charges were dismissed against the two men accused of running the operation.
And after a 2016 judgment, charges were dismissed against Leo Wai Ho Yee and Brianne Ting Ying Wong, two suspects arrested as a result of the Project Talon investigation into heroin and ecstasy trafficking.
'Repeated, systemic violations'
Cobb believes the public needs to know about what happened in these investigations.
"Just as no right-thinking person would be happy about seeing those charged with serious drug and/or weapons charges going free before a trial can even be held … so, too, should they be extremely concerned about the repeated, systemic violations of the charter rights we all enjoy by senior police officers trained and well funded to investigate these crimes," he wrote.
Porteous is concerned, too. He said it's frustrating to watch people he believes are guilty of serious crimes go free because incriminating evidence is tossed.
"There have been other cases ... that haven't even gotten to the trial stage that have been scuttled," he said.
But he points out that some of the charter violations identified in these four investigations were not known to be charter violations while the police work was underway. That includes two of the breaches a judge identified in Project Trooper.
"It's hard to train in anticipation of changes in the law," Porteous said. "We don't have a crystal ball as to what the next decision is going to look like."
However, other breaches identified by the court have been established for much longer, including the right to timely access to a lawyer, and officers' responsibility to keep comprehensive notes. Porteous acknowledged that mistakes have been made on those fronts.
He said every disappointing decision changes how the drug unit conducts its investigations.
"It's getting to the point in some of these cases where we require constitutional legal experts to be on staff in our investigations as we go forward," Porteous said.