RCMP crossed line while interrogating radicalized teen after 2014 terror attack, says Quebec Appeals Court
But court upholds conviction of teen on terror charges, saying it would not have changed trial's outcome
An RCMP interrogation of a radicalized teenager, hours after the 2014 terror attack in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, was "abusive" and should not have been used against him at trial, Quebec's Court of Appeal said in a decision released Thursday.
But despite that finding, the appeal court rejected the Lachine teenager's bid to have his conviction on terrorism charges overturned.
The judges said the interrogation contained "no conclusive evidence that is not already in the record," and so would not have altered the lower court's verdict.
The teenager was 15 in 2014 when he was arrested for having robbed a convenience store with a knife and stole $870.
It was the latest in a string of incidents pointing to his radicalization, which also included consulting jihadist websites when he was 13 and trying to use his parent's credit card to buy airline tickets to Turkey.
His parents contacted police shortly after his arrest for the convenience store robbery to say they found a scrap of paper in the boy's pocket with a phone number on it.
As it turned out, the number belonged to Martin Couture-Rouleau.
Two days later, on October 20, 2014, Couture-Rouleau rammed a car into two Canadian soldiers in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, killing one of them. Couture-Rouleau was killed during an ensuing confrontation with police.
That night, RCMP officers interrogated the Lachine teenager, this time about his possible connections to Couture-Rouleau.
It was that interrogation that the Appeal Court found abusive.
RCMP told teen they weren't interested in him
In the interrogation, RCMP officers asked the teen several times whether he intended to carry out a similar attack as Couture-Rouleau's.
The teen said he didn't want to answer.
But the officers continued, repeatedly asking the teen if he wanted their help to prove his innocence.
The teen invoked his right to remain silent on several occasions.
The officers then tried a different tack, telling the teen they weren't interested in prosecuting him, only in gathering evidence against Couture-Rouleau.
"I'm telling you, gathering evidence against you — I've got nothing to do with that. I have bodies I'm working on — bodies of soldier and the body of Martin (Couture-Rouleau). That's what I'm working on, understand?" one of the officers told the teen.
At one point, the teen asked: "Is an opinion considered as proof against me?"
"Of course not," one of the officers said.
Undermined voluntary statement
At the teenager's trial, a judge allowed part of this interrogation to be admitted into evidence, despite concerns raised by the defence.
But the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled that, in the interrogation, the officers violated the teen's ability to make a voluntary statement when they promised to help him prove his innocence.
"In the context of youth criminal justice, the notion of a promise must be flexibly assessed to protect the adolescent's vulnerability," reads the decision handed down Thursday.
"Here, there is no doubt that the appellant wanted to remain silent. He was encouraged to answer questions, falsely believing that the officers wanted to help him and that it would be to his advantage," it continues.
The decision concludes that: "An interrogation may be insistent or forceful, but it must not be so abusive as to undermine the voluntary nature of the statement."
Because the interrogation crossed that line, the appeals court said, the lower court judge should not have allowed any of it to be admitted into evidence.
The teen, now 19, was found guilty in 2015 in youth court of committing a robbery in association with a terrorist organization and of planning to leave Canada to participate in the activities of a terrorist group abroad.
It was a landmark decision. He was, at the time, the first Canadian to be convicted of attempting to leave the country to participate in terrorism-related activities, one of the federal anti-terror laws passed in 2013.
He was sentenced to 16 months in youth detention, followed by eight months of community service and one year's probation.
His lawyer, Tiago Murias, told CBC News the teen is now back living with his parents.
Murias said the teen's legal team will study Thursday's decision to determine whether there is merit appealing the conviction to the Supreme Court of Canada.