Porn & Prejudice

Stillwell was charged with distributing, possessing and accessing child porn. A little more than 26 months elapsed between the date the information was sworn against Stillwell and the last day scheduled for his trial. Stillwell brought an application for a stay of proceedings on the basis that his right to a trial without unreasonable delay had been violated.

The trial judge concluded that 12.5 months of delay was attributable to the Crown (5.5 months crown and 7 months institutional) and that this exceeded the 8-10 month guideline established in Morin, 1992 CanLII 89 (SCC). The 5.5 months attributed to the Crown were dedicated to the analysis of Stillwell’s computer and the preparation of the report of that analysis. The trial judge entered a stay of proceedings.

The Crown successfully appealed: Stillwell, 2014 ONCA 563.  The Crown argued that first, given the shear volume of files on Stillwell’s computer additional time was required for the investigator to review and categorize the images. Second, the Crown argued that the trial judge erred in her assessment of the prejudice to Stillwell.

The trial judge commented on the task required of police in preparing a categorization report:

While I am sympathetic to the police and the difficult task they have to perform, it is clear that the resources assigned to the completion of this analysis were woefully inadequate, particularly when the main investigator became unavailable.  It is well settled that decisions on the part of the state concerning the allocation of its resources cannot be used to justify the abrogation of the rights of an accused person. @para 14.

The Court of Appeal accepted that:

(…) child pornography investigations are unique in that the storage capabilities of electronic devices may result in huge universes of information that can only be analyzed after charges have been laid. I also recognize that officers categorizing these types of images need frequent breaks due to the emotional toll associated with the work. @para 39

However the Court rejected the Crown’s argument that the 5.5 months attributed to the Crown for the preparation of the report was neutral. The Court held that allocating it as the trial judge did was appropriate in the circumstances.

The Court of Appeal however did not agree with the trial judge’s conclusion that such an allocation of time periods should result in a stay of these proceedings. The prejudice to the accused was minimal and “his ability to make full answer and defence was unaffected by the delay” [@para 23]. The Court agreed with the trial judge:  

(…) that the Crown delay in disclosing the final report was clearly disproportionate to the time spent preparing it.  In my view, however, this fact should not overwhelm the analysis.  On the trial judge’s own findings, the delay in disclosing the final report accounted for only five and a half months of the total 26 month period.  The bulk of the time was taken up by neutral intake time (nine months), defence delay (five and a half months) and reasonable institutional delay (seven months).  When the five and a half months of unreasonable Crown delay is added to the institutional delay, the total is 12.5 months – beyond the Morin guideline, but not egregiously so.  When this delay is balanced against the minimal prejudice the respondent experienced and the grave seriousness of the charges against him, the delay, while not ideal, was not unreasonable. [emphasis added]

With respect to the gravity of child pornography offences the Court referenced the recent SCC decision in Spencer, 2014 SCC 43 (check out blog on this by Dallas Mack “The Privacy of Anonymity”) as follows:

Society has both a strong interest in the adjudication of the case and also in ensuring that the justice system remains above reproach in its treatment of those charged with serious offences.  If the evidence is excluded, the Crown will effectively have no case.  The impugned evidence (the electronic files containing child pornography) is reliable and was admitted by the defence to constitute child pornography. Society undoubtedly has an interest in seeing a full and fair trial based on reliable evidence, and all the more so for a crime which implicates the safety of children. [Emphasis added.] @para 63.

Stillwell serves as a significant guide to the balancing required between prejudice to the accused and the mighty public interest in prosecuting child pornography offences. Minimal prejudice which does not impact on the accused’s right to make full answer and defence must not result in a stay. It also marks an important, although in this particular case not significant, acknowledgement of the massive task facing investigators as they process ‘universes of information’ found on computers.