Wednesday, May 27, 2009

How far-reaching are police checks of the background of prospective jurors in Ontario?

According to a series of stories this week by the National Post, police forces in Barrie and the surrounding region have allegedly been conducting background checks of potential jurors without their knowledge for several years at the request of the local Crown Attorneys. The practice allegedly dates back at least as far as December 2004. The National Post reported that the background checks were carried out using police databases. The information in the databases, which are administered by the Canadian Police Information Centre (CPIC) in Ottawa, are normally used by police in criminal investigations and require the consent of an individual to run a check that is not part of an investigation. The searches were allegedly an attempt to rid the jury pool of what the Crown considered to be “disreputable persons.”

Jurors were not told of the background checks and the information was not disclosed to defence lawyers, as is required under the legal and ethical obligations of the Crown. Although individuals convicted of an indictable offence cannot serve as jurors, the information obtained by the Crown through the police databases allegedly detailed whether a potential juror had been charged with a minor offence, had charges dropped or had been involved with the mental health system.

These alleged background checks raise issues of transparency with respect to police forces in Ontario, the Ontario Ministry of the Attorney-General and the Crown offices in Barrie and Simcoe County. If, in fact, this practice has been going on since 2004 there are likely countless cases that have been affected by it. Why did police comply with such requests from the Crown? The CPIC code of ethics does not allow for the police databases to be used for this purpose. Unquestionably, jurors that have served in Simcoe County since 2004 will be left wondering exactly what information was obtained about them by various police services and ultimately surrendered to the Crown. It is now necessary for Barrie Police Services to explain why they have participated in such background checks, in order to restore their transparency and accountability to the public. Only then can “…the people affected by it…make their own decision about a remedy,” said Frank Addario, president of the Ontario Criminal Lawyers’ Association.

This week, the Ontario Ministry of Attorney-General issued a directive ordering Crowns to cease background checks and permitting only checks to ensure that prospective jurors had not been convicted of an indictable offence.

Posted by Ashley Paterson (Law II) (Summer LEAP Intern)

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