On a warm September afternoon, a woman walked into a Henderson Highway Liquor Mart, selected six bottles from the shelves, and walked out without paying.

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On a warm September afternoon, a woman walked into a Henderson Highway Liquor Mart, selected six bottles from the shelves, and walked out without paying.

It happened around 5:35 p.m., Sept. 18, 2019. Staff submitted an online complaint to the Winnipeg Police Service, identifying the female shoplifter as someone named Sheila Linklater. An officer looked up Linklater's photo in a police database, compared it to images taken from video surveillance footage at the Liquor Mart, and found they matched. 

Linklater was criminally charged — even though she couldn't have shoplifted that day.

On Sept. 18, 2019, Linklater, 27, was already in jail, and had been for months.

She was still in custody at the Winnipeg Remand Centre when she was arrested and accused of shoplifting. It's unclear whether anyone asked how long she'd been locked up when the arrest warrant was enforced, or at any time before charges were laid.

Her case, far from the first of its kind, points to gaps in Manitoba's justice system. 

Charges against Linklater stemming from the Sept. 18 theft were stayed in Winnipeg provincial court in January — more than a year after a similar case involving a 32-year-old Indigenous man made national headlines when it reached Manitoba's Court of Appeal.

Richard Catcheway served six months in jail before anyone realized he couldn't have committed the break-in he'd pleaded guilty to, because he was in jail when the offence happened.

Since then, neither police nor prosecutors in Manitoba will confirm if mandatory checks are required to find out whether a suspect was in a correctional centre at the time of alleged offences. Some defence lawyers say the problem appears to be particularly glaring during liquor-store theft investigations. 

The Free Press requested an interview with the WPS, which wasn't granted prior to publication. The police force didn't provide any information about its policies or practices for accessing information from correctional institutions.

Manitoba Justice did not answer questions about practices within the prosecution service or corrections to ensure someone isn't charged for an incident that happened while they were already in custody.

"There are processes in place for Crowns and police to request this information from Corrections," was the justice department's response Thursday. In an earlier statement to the Free Press, Manitoba Justice placed responsibility on defence lawyers and the accused themselves.

A new controlled entrance that Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries is rolling out as an anti-theft measure in response to a spike in thefts during 2019. (Supplied)

A new controlled entrance that Manitoba Liquor and Lotteries is rolling out as an anti-theft measure in response to a spike in thefts during 2019. (Supplied)

"It is the responsibility of the accused and their counsel to present evidence to the court if it excludes them from a matter they’ve been charged with. Crowns are expected to review the investigation and determine if it meets the charging standard to proceed against the accused for the offence. The Crown attorney would seek further information if advised that the accused was in custody at the time of the offence," the initial statement said.

Linklater is currently receiving addictions treatment. She has a criminal record that includes theft convictions, and she faces other charges still before the court.

While she was in pre-trial custody in September, WPS issued an arrest report, obtained by the Free Press, saying: "All attempts to locate the accused have proved negative." Linklater was "positively identified" based on stills from the Liquor Mart video surveillance, it says.

Linklater's defence lawyer, Michael Dyck, said a simple call to the correctional institution would have cleared up the confusion. 

"This isn't complicated or difficult for them to verify, and it could avoid a lot of needless work, in terms of arrests and detentions and paying for people being in custody and then dealing with court time to deal with it. It's a colossal waste of resources that could be easily saved if they were prepared to invest in a minute worth of work," he said in an interview.

"It's a colossal waste of resources that could be easily saved if they were prepared to invest in a minute worth of work." – defence lawyer Michael Dyck

Linklater's situation is not unique.

"It happens consistently," said Winnipeg defence lawyer Kathy Bueti, adding one of her clients has been repeatedly charged with liquor-store thefts that occurred while he was incarcerated.

"There's all kinds of repercussions, which is why the police have to be diligent. They've got to make sure they've got the right person, and not just any person, and that's with any crime," she said.

"The problem, of course, is we're dealing with vulnerable individuals. We're dealing with people who have addictions issues, we're dealing with people who are Indigenous, we're dealing with people who are homeless and transient. And unfortunately in our system, those people become the usual cast of characters and suspects."

WPS said Thursday it no longer tracks specific data on the volume of liquor-store thefts in the city. The sometimes brazen thefts have increased dramatically in recent years, sparking security concerns for Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. and stoking public fears.

"They've got to make sure they've got the right person, and not just any person, and that's with any crime." –defence lawyer Kathy Bueti

Databases provide some information about suspects' previous jail sentences, but police don't necessarily have information about pre-trial custody at their fingertips, said RCMP spokeswoman Cpl. Julie Courchaine.

"So that would be something you would be investigating on your own," she said.

Courchaine couldn't speak about specific cases, but she said each is different and requires thorough investigation. In general, if investigators had any reason to believe the potential suspect was in custody during the time of the offence, they would call the correctional facility to confirm, she said.

"It's hard for me to give you a definitive answer on it, because there are different things that we use and different techniques... If ever the scenario came up and there was a chance that the person was in custody, definitely we would be checking that." 

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca  

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
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Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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