Mistakes by Greater Sudbury police impacted 13 child pornography cases, including one where police errors led to the dropping of charges, a CBC investigation reveals.
In December 2021, a Sudbury court heard about “systemic” issues within the Greater Sudbury Police Service, including that investigators had violated the constitutional rights of a suspect, something that also happened the year before in another child sex exploitation case.
That prompted CBC to file a freedom-of-information request two years ago.
The documents detail how officers with the northern Ontario police service’s Internet Child Exploitation Unit routinely asked suspects for passwords to their computers or other devices before they had a chance to consult with lawyers, contrary to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Greater Sudbury police now say the errors in the 13 cases also included not bringing an accused person before a court as soon as possible and delays in disclosure to defence counsel.
Sudbury police aim to regain ‘public trust,’ inspector says
Robert Norman, Sudbury police’s inspector of strategic operations, said he wasn’t surprised about the investigative errors because “case law is ever changing” and “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
“There’s no blaming here, there’s no shaming, there’s no ignorance or negligence in anything that we did. If there was, there would have been far more withdrawals,” said Norman.
“It’s very frustrating … Any time there’s a misstep or an unintentional discovery that we were proceeding in a wrong direction, that’s a devastating impact for our members. That’s a devastating impact for their morale.
“They don’t want to feel responsible for someone walking free on a technicality.”
Norman said the police service is “committed to rebuilding the public trust. We can’t undo the things that were done, but we can make ourselves better moving forward.”
“I know the organization is working toward building that transparency piece,” Norman said. “We need to do that. We need to ensure that the public has confidence and trust in its police service, and we do that through transparency.”
Michael Lacy, the defence lawyer who first raised concerns about the investigative mistakes in court, said, “The upper brass of the Sudbury police service still don’t seem to recognize that what was going on was wrong.
“It’s a much more important thing than just trying to characterize this as a technicality. It’s about protecting everyone and making sure the police are held accountable — to ensure that we don’t engage in an ends-justify-the-means approach to policing.”
Lacy said constitutional protections are vital to the justice system.
He said police officers, from “time to time,” make errors “in good faith, ask questions that they ought not to have asked.” But in his 25 years in law, he has never seen a police force with “such a systemic practice” as Greater Sudbury.
Initially, CBC requested information on the extent of the police errors and how many cases they affected. The police force would only say the errors had been “addressed through both specific and general training,” the mistakes “did not meet the threshold for discipline” and the department was “committed to moving forward.”
The freedom-of-information request was initially rejected by Greater Sudbury police, whose arguments included that the information would compromise law enforcement investigations and infringe on personal privacy.
CBC appealed the police service’s decision to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario.
Police released a training précis used by the Crown attorney’s office to educate officers on the constitutional rights of suspects in October 2020, but most of that material was blacked out.
Sudbury police argued against release of info
In arguing against the release of the information, Sudbury police told the privacy commissioner that significant details about these cases had already been made public, claiming the CBC “was provided with as much information as possible, which is always our practice, and it does not benefit us to withhold information to prevent negative publicity.”
In its ruling, the commissioner agreed with the Greater Sudbury police on some of the information it wanted to keep private, but also found some records “would not constitute an unjustified invasion of personal privacy because the desirability of public scrutiny over the police outweighs the factors favouring privacy protection.”
The documents obtained by CBC also refer to “challenges” in the relationship between Sudbury police and the local Crown attorney’s office, noting a prosecutor “insinuated” a Sudbury detective was “lying” about how he conducted an investigation.
The internal police documents say the police-Crown relationship has “suffered” and is “struggling” because of the 13 cases, and add “it is imperative these relationships remain professional and respectful as the volume of cases will only increase.”
Norman said he can’t comment on those statements, but is confident the Crown and police will continue to work well together.