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This article was published 14/3/2014 (2137 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
They were touted as major victories in the province's war on drugs, with more than 100 kilograms of cocaine being seized by police during four separate investigations.
Tirath Bal, Gurdarshan Hansra, Kuljinder Dhillon, Alejandro Chung and Andy Koczab all faced the prospect of double-digit stays behind bars if convicted for their alleged roles in bringing an estimated $10 million worth of cocaine into Manitoba.
But all five men are free today after the cases against them collapsed, the result of several different factors that have many in the justice system wondering what message is really being sent.
Are Winnipeg police and RCMP simply not good enough at high-level drug investigations? Is the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so restrictive it hampers the ability of investigators to do their jobs? Are Crown attorneys making tactical errors in court? Have defence lawyers become so sharp they can expose every little loophole? Are criminals smarter than ever?
The answer, it would appear, may be all of the above.
1) Tirath Bal and Gurdarshan Hansra were acquitted March 7 on charges of trafficking and possession for the purpose of trafficking. This involved the July 2010 seizure of 51 kilograms of cocaine during a traffic stop near John Blumberg golf course — the largest single cocaine bust in Manitoba history.
Defence lawyers cast doubt on allegations the men knew of and controlled the drugs found inside their semi-trailer.
"Suspicion, even a reasoned suspicion, does not meet the standard of proof required," Queen's Bench Justice Robert Dewar said. "In my view, the Crown has not proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Messrs. Hansra and Bal had the requisite knowledge of the drugs found within their legitimate cargo."
Dewar clearly didn't accept a police expert who testified organized crime groups likely wouldn't trust "blind couriers" to transport such a valuable load.
2) Kuljinder Dhillon was acquitted Sept. 6, 2012 of charges of possession for the purpose of trafficking after the 2007 seizure of 38 kilograms of cocaine during a traffic stop at the weigh scales near West Hawk Lake.
Dhillon testified he had no idea the drugs were stashed inside the vehicle.
Like Dewar, Queen's Bench Justice Shawn Greenberg accepted the "blind courier" defence offered by Dhillon.
3) Alejandro Chung was acquitted May 11, 2012 in a case that involved the seizure of an undisclosed amount of cocaine following a warrantless search by police of a Winnipeg business.
Queen's Bench Justice Doug Abra ruled two Winnipeg police officers trampled all over the rights of the accused.
"If I permit the drugs, the paraphernalia and other seized items into evidence, I will be condoning wilful and flagrant breaches by the authorities of the accused's rights," Abra wrote in his decision.
4) Andy Koczab was acquitted March 30, 2011 in a case involving the 2007 seizure of 17 kilograms of cocaine during a traffic stop on the western edge of Winnipeg.
Queen's Bench Justice Perry Schulman was critical of the actions of a Headingley RCMP officer who pulled over Koczab for driving 110 km/h in a 100 km/h zone on the Trans-Canada Highway.
"(The officer's) conduct was neither inadvertent nor minor. It was wilful and egregious," Schulman said in a written decision. He ruled the officer illegally detained Koczab without proper grounds or instructing him of his legal rights.
"In the short term, the exclusion of the evidence may negatively affect the public perception of the justice system. However, in a case like this, admission of the evidence would, in the long term, negatively impact on the public perception because a ruling here would tend to encourage, rather than discourage, such conduct," said Schulman.
So you've caught a guy red-handed, alone in a vehicle or a home with a large quantity of drugs. Open-and-shut case, right?
In all four above examples, what might have seemed at first blush like a slam-dunk proved to be anything but. And that, some experts say, shows the need for police to up their game.
"Perhaps the problem is that the officers involved were not well-trained," David Deutscher, a law professor at the University of Manitoba, said after reviewing the cases. He said it's clear several critical errors were made by police officers, which judges often referenced in their decisions.
He believes police need to be more thorough in these types of investigations. "They should not stop their investigation with the finding of the drugs."
Police need to follow the trail, he said, and build a stronger link between the origin and destination of the drugs and the couriers.
Prominent Winnipeg defence lawyer Sheldon Pinx, who represented the accused in three of the cases, agrees. "The police can't just grab the drugs and assume they're going to just convict these guys," Pinx said.
James Jewell, a recently retired Winnipeg police officer, said cases like these are definite eye-openers.
"Police learn what they can from these decisions and adapt training and operations accordingly," he said.
Winnipeg police and RCMP did not return messages seeking comment for this story.
While admitting they're far from perfect, Jewell believes it's unfair to put the blame squarely on the shoulder of investigators.
"Police officers involved in these investigations have to make split-second decisions as they react to the dynamics of a traffic stop," he said, "whereas judges and lawyers examine these investigations under a microscope within the confines of a sterile legal process."
He believes the Charter makes these types of investigations incredibly difficult.
"If judges are inclined to ignore expert opinion evidence that points to the guilt of drug couriers, then there is little the police can do," said Jewell. "Respected former Justice John Scollin often said, 'When considering reasonable doubt, don't check your common sense at the door.' Some judges would be well served to heed that advice."
But Deutscher said police can't claim ignorance when it comes to the Charter. "I would simply say to police 'Obey the law.' "
Pinx has earned the reputation as a "case killer" — a label the veteran Manitoba lawyer wears proudly. He said the "blind courier" defence is often successful because it raises "reasonable doubt."
"These are often circumstantial cases. There is no smoking gun." And if there is no forensic evidence linking the accused, and no follow-up investigation about the origin and destination of the drugs, Pinx said he and his colleagues often jump at the opening.
"Crown attorneys almost always try to win these blind courier cases on the basis of calling an expert."
Several veteran Crown attorneys told the Free Press they are often restricted by the evidence given to them by police. Prosecutors have even expressed concern over police conduct in some drug cases, including one several years ago where charges were stayed after two Winnipeg police officers were deemed to have manipulated the evidence.
"I told them no accused is worth being criminally charged and worth losing their careers," federal Crown attorney Erin Magas testified in 2012 at the trial of the two officers, who were charged with obstruction of justice. They were ultimately acquitted.
Pinx said there is evidence the vast majority of drug couriers are not getting caught, meaning those who do represent a tiny sample size.
"Therefore, we often argue that if you don't catch (many of) them, then you don't know the techniques they're using," said Pinx. "If these cases are defended properly, they're very difficult to prove."
There's a reason it is dubbed "organized" crime. Don't think for a second those involved in high-level drug dealing aren't closely monitoring the courts and adapting their techniques to try to avoid prosecution.
That's why traffic-stop cases can become nightmares once they get to court. Typically, police have more success in drug investigations when they go undercover. There have been numerous examples in Manitoba of lengthy projects in which police used informants to gather valuable evidence, including audio and video surveillance, which made for rock-solid prosecutions.
Even when cases like these collapse, justice officials are still striking a serious blow to organized crime, Jewell said.
"Ultimately, while decisions to acquit drug couriers may frustrate police, the impact of the drug seizures on organized crime is no less significant. Acquitted or not, the criminal organizations don't get their drugs back."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.