Judge lambastes police in drug trial
Accused acquitted due to questionable evidence, illegal strip search
A judge had some scathing words for the Niagara Regional Police as a case against a suspected mobile drug trafficker fell apart recently in an Ontario Court of Justice courtoom in St. Catharines.
First, Judge Peter Wilkie ruled a strip search performed by Niagara Regional Police had “deliberately and blatantly violated” the suspect’s charter privacy rights before adding that the officers had “displayed a shocking indifference to, or ignorance of, wellestablished constitutional norms.”
Wilkie then excluded the key evidence against the suspect, a bag of crack cocaine.
In his written decision, the judge ruled that not only had the evidence been uncovered during the unconstitutional strip search, it was also inadmissible because “there was nothing close to a documented chain of custody” for the drugs, though he stopped short of saying it had been planted.
Wilkie also found the testimony by a string of officers riddled with “deficiencies, omissions and contradictions.”
It all added up to an acquittal for Jamal Harrison, 33, on a charge of cocaine possession for the purposes of trafficking.
Harrison, a resident of Barbados, was living in Thorold at the time of his arrest on June 17, 2015.
The arrest was the result of information from a confidential informant and surveillance, in which police said they observed multiple, mobile drug transactions throughout Niagara.
Harrison was travelling with two other men in a car when he was taken down by the police. A frisk of his body and a search of the vehicle came up empty, and he was taken to the police station while other officers executed a search warrant at his home. That search came up empty as well.
The strip search took place at the station while Harrison was being booked. An officer testified some “contraband” wrapped in plastic fell to the floor after Harrison’s pants and underwear were removed and shaken.
Wilkie said strip searches are inherently degrading and humiliating and need to be handled with care and respect for charter limitations. He criticized the police for carrying out the search in a hallway just outside the booking area.
It was an area that afforded the suspect little to no privacy and the door was left open, allowing others to look in or enter the area. One officer, who wasn’t involved, wandered in just to see what was going on.
“But that is not all,” the judge said. “The hallway was under video sur-
veillance and the search was live streamed as one of a number of images projected onto three monitors in the booking area where two female officers were working that evening.
“The result is that the search was broadcast to other areas of the police facility so that any number of officers or civilian personnel could have watched some or all of the entire search process.”
The judge said the evidence suggested that what took place was standard practice at the station and remained so until the fall of 2017 when a new police station was built.
Defence lawyer Bobbi Walker was especially successful in dissecting the lapses in the chain of custody of the drugs. Wilkie said he was left with significant doubt that the plastic bag and contents that came from Harrison’s clothing was, in fact, the same substance that was sent to the lab for analysis by the police.
The initial problem with the chain of custody is that the special constable who picked up the plastic bag during the strip search had no recollection that he seized the drugs, had no notes about doing so and was unable to tell the court what he did with them.
The special constable testified he “assumed” that he would have left the search area and handed the package to the booking sergeant. However, the booking sergeant testified she never dealt with the contraband.
Another officer ended up with the evidence and was told to drive it to an office in Thorold on Allenburg Road, where the investigators on the case were working.
However, the detective who received the evidence in Thorold testified he received the evidence at Harrison’s residence, not the office in Allenburg.
Wilkie said the problems with the chain of custody took on even more significance because the description of the drugs seized from the accused was completely different from what was sent to be analyzed. One officer said the bag contained white powder. Others said it contained a series of individually wrapped brownish grey pellets of crack cocaine.
On Wednesday, Justice Fergus O’Donnell dismissed drug trafficking charges against Denmare Gallimore, 20, of Mississauga, and Alton Johnston, 23, of Brampton, who were arrested in January 2016. O’Donnell, too, said Niagara Regional Police violated their rights when they were subjected to an illegal strip search.