Calgary

$4.5-million cocaine trafficking trial to resume 17 months after charges stayed

Three Calgary men accused of trafficking $4.5 million in cocaine will see their 2017 trial resume after the Alberta Court of Appeal rejected a judge's findings that let the trio off the hook because of unreasonable delays in the case.

Three men saw their charges stayed in June 2017 after a judge ruled it took too long from charge to trial

A joint investigation between U.S. and Canadian authorities resulted in a dozen cocaine trafficking-related charges being laid against Christopher Scher, Michael Janecek and Steven Doporto. (Nevada Highway Patrol)

Three Calgary men accused of trafficking $4.5 million in cocaine will see their 2017 trial resume after the Alberta Court of Appeal rejected a judge's findings that let the trio off the hook because of unreasonable delays in the case.

The higher court ordered Christopher Scher, Michael Janecek and Steven Doporto to go back before Justice Bruce Millar, who will continue to hear evidence and arguments and then make a ruling on guilt.

"The charges against the accused are serious and society's interest in bringing the accused to trial is high," reads the decision.

"There is no specific prejudice to the accused or suggestion that their rights to make a full answer and defence have been impaired."

Before the charges were dropped, prosecutor Frank Polak had closed the Crown's case. Defence had not yet called evidence and no final arguments were made. 

The three men saw their charges stayed in June 2017 after a second Supreme Court of Canada decision was released, doubling down on what it considered an unreasonable amount of time from charge to trial.

Two weeks before he stayed the charges, Millar had ruled against defence lawyers Hersh Wolch, Jim Lutz and Kim Ross. But once the Supreme Court's Cody decision was released, the judge reversed his decision.

In Monday's court of appeal decision, it said the burden is on all parties including defence to ensure a timely trial.

"The parties were waiting for trial and there is nothing to suggest that the court system or defence counsels' schedules could have accommodated any earlier trial date than what had already been scheduled."

In this case, the trial had taken 41 months — nearly a full year longer than the hard timeline imposed by the country's top court for superior court cases.

But the Crown appealed the stays, and prosecutor Barb Mercier argued the trial judge erred in assessing the complexity of the case and didn't assign delay to the proper parties.

"The Crown has satisfied its burden in justifying the delay," wrote the panel of judges. "The complexity of the case, the seriousness of the charges, and the lack of specific prejudice to the accused weigh against stays of proceedings."

The panel included Justice Franz Slatter, Justice Barbara Veldhuis and Justice Frederica Schutz.

Plea deal

The three men are accused of trafficking 45 kilograms of cocaine worth $4.5 million.

They were arrested in January 2014 and each faced charges of conspiracy to import cocaine, conspiracy to traffic cocaine, trafficking cocaine and possession for the purpose of trafficking.

The two-year investigation began in 2012 when the Nevada Highway Patrol arrested Austin William Hill during a traffic stop and discovered the cocaine packaged in 63 vacuum-sealed bundles in a hidden compartment under the bed of a pickup truck. 

Hill was charged at the time but made a plea deal with the Crown in exchange for testimony against his former associates.

Investigators with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) determined the drugs were destined for Calgary and the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams (ALERT) became involved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Meghan Grant

CBC Calgary crime reporter

Meghan Grant is the courts and crime reporter for CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach her at meghan.grant@cbc.ca or on Twitter at @CBCMeg.

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