A B.C. Supreme Court justice freed an accused cocaine trafficker Friday because there was no sheriff to lead the man from a cell in the Victoria courthouse to the courtroom.
The incident highlighted an ongoing sheriff shortage that has closed courtrooms, delayed trials and tossed cases out of court around B.C. The Victoria courthouse is particularly hard hit.
Justice Robert Johnston called the situation “completely unacceptable” and blamed it on “a lack of provincial will to provide the necessary resources,” as he stayed a charge of possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking against Richard D’Allesandro.
“Crown is ready to go. Defence is ready to go. The court is ready to go. Mr. D’Allesandro is in custody in this building, but he is not able to attend because there are no sheriffs to bring him to court,” Johnston said.
“It’s completely unacceptable, and I am not prepared to conduct this trial in Mr. D’Allesandro’s absence. He has a right to be here and he should be here.
“More and more frequently in this building — and it is a matter of great distress to both myself and my fellow judges — important criminal matters are delayed starting because of a lack of staff like sheriffs and clerks.”
The shortage worries Judge Robert Higinbotham, administrator of the south Island provincial court.
“I know both courts are concerned at the highest level. I know the government is concerned. Certainly, the sheriff’s department is concerned,” said Higinbotham, who informs the chief justice every time a courtroom is closed, a trial adjourned or charges stayed.
Even at the best of times, when no one is off on sick leave or on long-term disability, staffing is tight in Victoria, he said. Attempts are made to ship in sheriffs from elsewhere in B.C., but they’re not always available.
“The real problem is you just can’t hire anyone off the street for this job. You have to have properly trained people and the next graduating class from the Justice Institute is in June,” Higinbotham said.
This week, Victoria asked for five additional sheriffs but only got one. That meant two trial courts were closed on Wednesday. It also meant that a provincial court judge — earning a salary of more than $240,000 — was not able to sit in court for three days because a sheriff, earning about $56,000, was not available.
“I don’t know that it’s a crisis, but it may get to that,” Higinbotham said. “But the shortage of resources has an impact.”
The system is even unable to accommodate people who want to plead guilty on their first day in court. That means the added time and expense of bring them back later.
“And I’m sure there is pressure on Crown counsel to engage in plea bargaining that might not otherwise be done,” Higinbotham said. “So there are these unseen hidden consequences which, over time, could erode the public’s faith in the justice system. If we can’t accommodate the needs of our community, that’s going to get noticed.”
Defence lawyer Michael Munro, who represented D’Allesandro, had another case stayed this week for the same reason.
“The court system has ground to a halt because we don’t have a sheriff who can walk your client from court cells into a courtroom. That’s how short they are,” Munro said.
“It’s absolutely ridiculous and infuriating.”
Victoria lawyer Tom Morino had two criminal trials adjourned this week without notice because of the sheriff shortage. “In 30 years, I’ve never seen the court system in such a state of complete and utter chaos,” he said.
Four police officers and a civilian witness who were at the courthouse, ready to testify at a drug-trafficking trial, were sent home at the last minute, Morino said. “Luckily, my clients were not in custody.”
Dean Purdy, spokesman for the B.C. Government and Service Employees’ Union, said the problem isn’t recruiting sheriffs, but retaining them. Sheriffs are the lowest paid of the enforcement agencies in B.C., he said.
“Sheriffs are paid $56,000 to $60,000 a year. They can’t make a living in Victoria or the Lower Mainland. The government needs to pay the sheriffs properly for the job they do,” Purdy said.
By comparison, the starting salary for an RCMP constable is $50,674. Within three years, the salary increases to $82,100. Victoria police probationary constables start at $64,500. After five years, the salary is $92,165. A Transit Police recruit makes $65,000. A Transit constable with 10 years of experience makes $94,000. A 20-year Transit police officer makes $104,000.
Purdy said the sheriff shortage is putting the safety of judges, the staff and the public at risk.
“The threat of violence is growing in all Canadian courthouses and more needs to be done to protect the people who work there,” Purdy said.
An email from the Ministry of Justice said from time to time, cases must be rescheduled because of a shortage of sheriffs.
“Staffing needs are continually reviewed, and the ministry continues to recruit and train new sheriffs to meet ongoing demand. Two new classes for recruits are scheduled in 2017 — one is underway and graduates will be assigned in May. The second begins in June with graduation in October. This is in addition to the 23 sheriffs who joined the service in October 2016,” the statement said.
In 2012, there were 64 full-time equivalent staff for Vancouver Island, compared with 60 in 2016, said the email.
The ministry did not respond to questions about a long-term plan to ease the shortages, whether the province will be able to meet staffing requirements for the coming year or whether the government is considering an increase in salary.
The vast majority of the court’s business is conducted as scheduled, the email said.