An alleged heroin trafficker, sitting in the prisoner’s box, smiled when a B.C. Supreme Court justice stayed three criminal charges against him because no sheriff was available for his trial on Wednesday.
It was the second time in less than a week a case against an accused drug dealer was tossed out of court because of a shortage of sheriffs at the Victoria courthouse.
“It’s the responsibility of the state, that is the province, to adequately staff courthouses,” said Justice Jacqueline Dorgan, as she stayed a charge of heroin trafficking and two weapons offences against Michael Dubensky.
“Part of that responsibility of staffing includes making sheriffs available so that trials can run as they are meant to. Sheriffs are pivotal to the operation of a trial and particularly so for in-custody trials. I am told the responsibilities for our sheriff officers for the trial this morning, set for three days, have not been met. There are no sheriffs available.”
Four Victoria police officers had come to court to testify.
Prosecutor Cristin Peel and defence lawyer Jordan Watt, who spent hours preparing for the trial, were also not given advance notice the case would not proceed.
The law requires an accused person be tried within a reasonable time, Dorgan said. The alleged offences were committed on Sept. 17, 2015.
“This is of particular importance with a person in custody … I see no reasonable alternative in this case but to enter a stay of judicial proceedings.”
Before proceedings began in Victoria provincial court, Judge Christine Lowe commented on “another day of severe sheriff shortages in this courthouse.”
Only one provincial court with a judge was running, Lowe said. The shortage of sheriffs shut down one trial court, family case conferences and settlement conferences.
“The presence of a sheriff in the courtroom is important for security. It’s also important for maintaining order and decorum in the courtroom,” Lowe said. Judges presiding over trials or other hearings are not equipped to assess security risks that might arise either generally in the hallway, or in the courtrooms, or with respective witnesses and others outside the courtroom. The presence of the sheriff allows the judge to concentrate on his or her duties, while secure in the knowledge that security and appropriate decorum is being maintained.”
Justice Minister Suzanne Anton conceded that the Victoria courthouse is a “bit stretched” for sheriffs.
“There’s four away at the moment due to illness of one kind or another and we have two jury trials underway. That is very consuming of resources. So it was unfortunate that the decision was made to stay the case, rather than reschedule it.”
Anton said she has met with her officials and would meet with them again Wednesday to discuss the matter.
“I want to make sure Victoria is properly staffed,” she said.
A budget increase of $2.67 million will pay for two sheriff classes at the Justice Institute this year and next year, said Anton.
“We do need to put more people in the system and our budget did recognize that so I did get the extra funds to do that,” she said.
Asked how long it would take to fix the problem, Anton replied: “That’s the discussion I’m going to have this afternoon.”
NDP justice critic Mike Farnworth called the situation “absolutely outrageous.”
“The idea that accused drug traffickers are being let out because of insufficient resources, in terms of sheriffs, is just unacceptable. This is not something new in terms of the issues around the appropriate number of sheriffs, but the fact is we’ve gone from 35 in Victoria down to 21. We’ve gone from 500 to just over 400 in this province . . . and the idea that our justice system is being impaired because of this rests solely on this government’s shoulders.
“The fact is that these are serious, serious crimes that the public expects will be prosecuted, that they will be dealt with.”
Dean Purdy, spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees Union, suggested the government could improve retention of sheriffs by offering a pay increase through a market adjustment.
“We’ve been raising the alarm bells on this for years now and warning them what would happen,” said Purdy.