Halifax police evidence audit raises serious questions for defence lawyer
Stan MacDonald says he wants to know if police can produce drug evidence used to charge his clients
A defence lawyer in Halifax wants to know if police can produce the drug evidence used to charge his clients.
Stan MacDonald said he's making a request to federal prosecutors to double-check evidence in all his open cases, after an audit found widespread problems with exhibits in Halifax Regional Police drug vaults.
"What we always look for, as defence lawyers, is whether or not the Crown can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt," said MacDonald, who has represented accused in drug and other crimes for 28 years.
"If the continuity of an exhibit in a drug case is in serious question, then that may raise a reasonable doubt."
Audit raises serious questions
Internal auditors checked the drug and money vaults of Halifax Regional Police in the summer and fall of 2015. They couldn't find nearly a third of drug and cash exhibits.
MacDonald said that raises serious issues and wonders "whether or not the items that were seized that may be the basis of charges against them either still exist, or will be available for the prosecution in the event of a trial."
The audit found drug evidence was often stored in unsealed Ziploc bags. It identified continuity issues in between 80 and 90 per cent of drug exhibits.
"I would think in many cases the police would be hard pressed to say they maintained the integrity of the exhibit if it wasn't sealed," MacDonald said.
Police wait months to release audit
Halifax Regional Police launched the drug exhibit audit in May 2015. That's the same time the province's police oversight body, the Serious Incident Response Team, began investigating a theft of drugs from HRP drug vaults.
Const. Laurence Gary Basso was eventually charged with theft, breach of trust and obstruction of justice for allegedly stealing 700 grams of lidocaine, a substance that can be used to dilute other illegal narcotics.
The audit investigation was completed in November 2015. But details of the results didn't become public until last week through a report in The Coast, a Halifax newspaper.
MacDonald said that gap is troubling, especially for clients who entered quick guilty pleas without knowing about possible evidence problems in their cases.
"If you did an early guilty plea and the integrity of the exhibit is in question, then the guilty plea may be in question," MacDonald said.
No review unless issues arise
Drug offences in Canada are prosecuted by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada. Atlantic Canada's chief federal prosecutor said drug evidence was always present in cases that were tried in Halifax court.
"We are certain those exhibits are there before we proceed to trial," said Barry Nordin, adding he expects to receive more requests to produce drug evidence now that news of the drug audit is public.
He said the Public Prosecution Service of Canada would consider launching a review of evidence in past cases, but only if there's evidence of widespread problems.
"We are not going to undertake this review until we see that there are issues presenting themselves," he said.
The head of criminal operations for the Halifax Regional Police said the audit came as a shock.
"When we looked at the initial results, they were alarming. Nobody's more alarmed about this than we are," said Supt. Jim Perrin.
But Perrin said he doesn't believe the missing exhibits were stolen.
"It's possible that some of them could be gone," he said. "My gut instinct is that they're misplaced, and there were some misses as far as keystroke entries on the system."
Right now Perrin can't provide a total for the quantity of money and drugs currently missing from storage vaults. The audit said the money vault can be used to store "high risk amounts" of over $100,000.
Finding the evidence
Perrin said there won't be a definitive answer about what's missing or the overall extent of the evidence problem until a second audit of the drug and money vaults is complete. There's no timeline yet for that process, he said.
He said four people are now assigned to the job: A civilian RCMP employee, and three HRP officers from outside the drug investigation unit.
The chair of the Halifax Board of Police Commissioners, Coun. Russell Walker, said HRP Chief Jean-Michel Blais first told him of the audit results on June 22, the day before The Coast published its drug exhibit audit investigation.
Walker has called a special session of the Halifax police commission on Thursday afternoon to discuss matters related to the drug audit.
He wouldn't comment in detail, and the meeting is behind closed doors. The published agenda refers to a personnel matter.