THE spirit of the word "forthwith" couldn’t be more simple and clear. It commands action. It means something is to take place immediately, without delay.
For police to accuse a person of a criminal offence is no small thing.
Same goes for arresting people.
An arrest is a loss of freedom, however temporary it may or may not be.
It’s just one of the considerable powers we entrust to police officers to act on behalf of the state for the greater good of all of us.
But their exercise of this power doesn’t, and shouldn’t, come without checks and balances.
And one way Canadian lawmakers intended to check this authority is by commanding that a person subject to an arrest warrant be brought "forthwith" before the courts to be dealt with. So, when credible allegations surface that police appear to sometimes deliberately turn a blind eye to the law’s instruction, it’s a serious issue.
Twice this past week I wrote about different cases where such claims surfaced. Each involved police obtaining arrest warrants for offenders they know are in jail and then lying in wait until they’re released to spring out of the shadows, execute the warrants and return the person to custody.
The implication of this conduct is simple to grasp: police appear to be playing fast and loose with the law to try to maximize the time offenders spend off the streets. It’s a practice some defence lawyers call "gating." In each case, there were repercussions.
The judge, Tim Killeen, didn’t go so far as to rule the actions of police were deliberate, but it sure appeared that way.
There was no explanation offered to the contrary. In one case, the Crown cut a plea deal to Terry Shorting, 21, after it came to light Winnipeg police knew he was in custody but let an arrest warrant sit idle for 10 months until an hour after he got out and checked in with his parole officer.
The other case saw Roderick Stranger, 28, walk free from several charges after police waited for him to sit 47 months in custody and get statutory release before executing an outstanding warrant. Whether 10 months or nearly four years, this is hardly "forthwith."
Nevertheless, public backlash over the gating reports came strong and swift. And largely, it wasn’t directed at the police.
This was especially so from a cadre of folk who rage anonymously on online comment boards, but also from readers who penned their real names in emails to me personally or in letters to the Free Press.
Killeen, a former city defence lawyer who was appointed to the bench in summer 2012, was sharply criticized for somehow showing a pro-criminal bias by saying the gating issue appears to be a recurring one and he’s "profoundly unimpressed" by it.
Many decried Shorting’s lawyer as a kind of shyster playing lawyerly tricks.
I personally was rapped by James Jewell, a former veteran Winnipeg police sergeant turned pundit, who opined the reporting of Shorting’s case was unbalanced and "decidedly sympathetic" toward the offender’s situation.
With respect, I disagree.
Even the Crown prosecutor publicly criticized the Shorting scenario as "ridiculous." Mostly, what struck me about the response was how the real issues — procedural fairness and questionable police conduct — quickly got spun into a predictable rant session where people vented their spleens about so-called "soft on crime" treatment of offenders.
Most concerning was how many appeared to feel police were justified in their use of the gating tactic because they’re besieged and frustrated by the criminal element and the feckless criminal court system they answer to.
My response to them is simple: That’s just plain dangerous thinking.
While on some level it’s gratifying to see the fervent support our police enjoy from many, I suspect that support would quickly wither and die should any who support use of the "gating" or other questionable tactic find themselves falling prey to it.
Police officers are the public embodiment of the law. They are not, however, above the law.
"The legal system in Canada is based around many basic principles, most importantly justice — moral correctness, or equitableness." reader Evan Stock wrote to the Free Press in a letter showing true insight into the real issue.
"The police tactic of ‘gating’ is none of these traits," Stock said. "If our legal system, and therefore our police force, is based around the principle of justice, why is an entirely unjust act commonplace?" I wish I had an answer for him.
All I know is what the Shorting and Stranger cases demonstrate: use of the tactic doesn’t come without consequence.
It comes with real costs to justice when it is discovered. Not just to offenders and the rights of the general public to see charges dealt with in a timely way. But also to victims left wondering — sometimes for years — what happened to their cases.
All because of what appears to be the pursuit of a childish agenda.