Police Chief Devon Clunis has a perfectly reasonable explanation for why Winnipeg officers are not jumping to arrest and charge individuals who are subject to outstanding warrants -- there's too much work to do with too few officers, and those suspects already behind bars are not immediate threats to the public. But scratch the surface of the rationale and there's plenty of reason why a judge is concerned about the practice, and recently castigated police for "gating" the suspects, arresting them only after they are released from custody.
First, the problem of warrants: There are some 20,000 outstanding warrants before the Winnipeg Police Service awaiting execution. Some of these are for serious offences, such as violent crimes, and others are less serious, such as for property offences or for breaking terms of release -- missing a date with a probation officer -- after being sentenced by the courts. About 200 more warrants came into the system last year (a total of 7,668) than were executed by the WPS. The backlog has accumulated over a number of years.
Further, Chief Clunis adds, there are additional hoops to jump through when officers want to arrest a suspect being held at Stony Mountain, as the federal system demands an additional "removal order" before releasing the prisoner for processing by the WPS.
Mr. Clunis says he is talking to other authorities to cut the paperwork, a good first step. But the WPS cannot lean on the threat to public safety in shunting the warrants for those in custody to the bottom of the heap. The dangers of such a practice, waiting at the gates for the suspects' release to re-arrest, sometimes many years after a warrant is issued, was illustrated in two recent cases. In one, a break-and-enter suspect was arrested four years later, two days after he was released from jail on another offence; the second case saw a man arrested under similar circumstances, but eight months after the warrant was issued.
The man charged in the latter case pleaded guilty in a deal with the Crown attorney; in the first, provincial court Judge Tim Killeen threw out the charges, saying the man had unnecessarily waited too long for his day in court.
The need for timely justice is well founded. The longer the wait from the day of the crime to the trial, the less acute the memory is for everyone involved, including the suspect -- remember where you were on a given day and hour four years ago -- and especially for potential witnesses. That presents problems for prosecution and for defence. Excessive delays are inherently unfair to the victims and the accused. That is why the charter protects individuals' rights to due process in law and trial without undue delay.
Police must prioritize warrants based on risk, but as just these two cases show, the practice of 'gating' jeopardizes justice itself. The excessive backlog should spark a special review of warrants for those gathering dust, a redoubled effort to trim the list of those that can be executed to a manageable size. That, as Chief Clunis noted, needs the assistance of federal and provincial officials. But the warrants for those individuals known to be in custody, in the remand centres or provincial jails especially, ought to be the easiest, fastest to move on, and that is what the WPS should do.