Threats of injury or death to Crown prosecutors, police and witnesses attack the heart of the criminal justice system. For the system to function, the major players in law enforcement and criminal prosecutions must be protected against intimidation by those whom they arrest and prosecute.
Last week, a Supreme Court of Canada decision restored some of that protection. Along the way, the court also added balance to an area of criminal law badly in need of it.
The case involved an accused who got quite detailed about how he was going to find his targets in the justice system, and what he was going to do to them when he found them.
While in prison in June 2009, awaiting trial on narcotics-trafficking charges, Quebecer Stéphane McRae and another inmate conspired to attack a Crown prosecutor, a police investigator and four witnesses. But prison officials got wind of their plan, and placed a listening device on a third prison inmate friendly with McRae. McRae subsequently made a series of increasingly specific threats, all recorded by that inmate.
He said he would "rearrange the face" of the prosecutor. He made the same threat against a witness he believed had snitched on him to police. Later, he asserted that once his trial was over he'd kill any witnesses who testified against him.
Despite the weight of the evidence against McRae, the trial judge and Quebec Court of Appeal both found McRae not guilty of five charges of uttering threats. They concluded McRae's statements didn't constitute threats because they weren't made to, or intended to be delivered to, his intended targets.
Now the Supreme Court has, rightly, rebuked the trial court and Quebec Court of Appeal for tilting too far in favour of those who profess attacks on, or even death to, justice officials, police and witnesses, ruling the lower courts gave an unduly technical interpretation of the Criminal Code definition of the crime.
The Supreme Court ruled that, to be threats, words warranting harm or death must only be capable of being taken seriously by anyone who heard them. The threats don't have to reach the intended victims. The Supreme Court overturned the acquittal and ordered a re-trial of the charges.
Had the lower court decisions stood, criminals would have had virtual licence to intimidate prosecutors, police officers and witnesses -- so long as they did it obliquely. The Supreme Court ruling, however, ensures violent threats against those who enforce or uphold our law no longer get a free pass.