Did RCMP go too far in violating an Edmonton drug dealer’s Charter rights when he was arrested in Fort Providence with cocaine, a safe full of cash, and a loaded semi-automatic rifle?
And did a trial judge lean too far in favour of protecting the territory from drug dealers – described by that judge as “vultures” – without adequately ensuring Cassius Zane Paradis was protected from undisciplined police officers during an October 2018 traffic stop in the hamlet?
Those questions were raised during a hearing of the NWT Court of Appeal in a Yellowknife courtroom on Tuesday, examining whether Charter breaches during that traffic stop were given sufficient consideration at the time.
“Police are supposed to conduct their investigations under clear guidelines and they chose not to do so,” said defence lawyer Benjamin Lotery. “There was no lawful reason for [Paradis’] detention.
“Even if you say this is a close call [on arbitrary detainment], you still have all this other contact afterwards that clearly didn’t follow procedure.
“The fact the Charter violations could be much worse doesn’t diminish the severity of the violations [in this case]. Looking at the [RCMP’s] entire conduct as a whole, I would submit this is an extremely concerning case.”
The NWT Court of Appeal features judges appointed from Alberta and Saskatchewan courts of appeal, along with judges from NWT and Yukon supreme courts and the Nunavut Court of Justice.
They were examining events from the fall of 2018, when Paradis was pulled over by RCMP while driving through the community with a 15-year-old male youth.
The court heard police had received tips that drugs were being dealt from a car that matched the description of Paradis’ rented Jetta.
Police stopped the vehicle and discovered a cache of weapons; approximately 130 grams of cocaine; a client "scoresheet;" and $4,000 in cash, much of it in a safe in the trunk.
However, last year, NWT Supreme Court Justice Shannon Smallwood ruled there were several breaches of Paradis' Charter rights during the police stop. These included arbitrarily detaining him, failing to advise him of the reason for his detention, failing to provide him with his right to counsel, and failures related to the subsequent search of the vehicle.
At the time, Smallwood determined the breaches, “while not at the most serious end of the spectrum, were significant.”
She concluded the evidence seized was admissible, but subsequently considered the breaches as mitigating factors at sentencing.
'Clearly something was wrong'
On Tuesday, Alberta's Justice Brian O'Ferrall, one of three justices on the appeals panel, said: “This wasn’t just a traffic stop … it was a ruse.”
Crown prosecutor Blair MacPherson, who was not the trial attorney, argued on Tuesday that police were acting intuitively in a “very fluid situation,” during which they were “trying to be respectful” to Paradis and a 15-year-old male in a rented blue Volkswagen Jetta.
“It was a clear Charter breach that lasted only a few minutes … [the officer] was asking for his registration and making observations … that are of grave concern. Paradis was moving towards his pouch. Clearly something was wrong with this situation.”
A loaded AR-15 carbine rifle, cocaine, cash and drug trafficking paraphernalia was seized by RCMP on October 20, 2018 during a traffic stop in Fort Providence.
Cassius Zane Paradis is seen in a photo uploaded to Facebook.
In May 2019, Smallwood sentenced Paradis, 30, to a total of five years in prison for several charges, including trafficking cocaine and possessing a semi-automatic AR-15 style rifle with a full 40-round clip. The rifle was jammed with an extra spring in the mechanism, but could have been quickly cleared by someone with knowledge of its operation.
Paradis was convicted of 12 drug and weapons-related offences but sentenced only on 10, owing to rules judges must follow regarding multiple convictions.
In addition to the five-year total sentence, Smallwood extended an existing firearms ban to 12 years and ordered Paradis to submit a DNA sample for the national crime databank.
Paradis was given credit for 10 months and two weeks of pre-trial custody, meaning at the time he had four years and six weeks left to serve.
At sentencing, Smallwood declared courts need to send a strong message to deter others who would come to the North to deal drugs.
“People like Mr Paradis who come from the south to traffic cocaine and prey upon our communities must be condemned," said the judge. “How can communities heal when people like Mr Paradis appear like vultures to profit off the weakness and addiction of others?”
On Tuesday, Lotery argued the sentence was “unduly harsh” as the rifle wasn’t operational at the time of the arrest, though he admitted the fact his client had been on a 10-year weapons prohibition “certainly was aggravating.”
Paradis had a January 2017 conviction for being found with a loaded firearm in a glovebox.
MacPherson noted that given all the crimes of which the Edmonton man was found guilty in May 2019, it was “quite easy to get to five years.”
At sentencing, Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane called for a seven-year sentence. The teenager found in the car with Paradis earlier pleaded guilty to a drug charge. Little is known of the youth, or how he came to be in the Jetta with Paradis.
The other two justices on the Court of Appeal panel Tuesday were Marina Paperny of Alberta and Justice Susan Cooper of Nunavut.
The panel reserved its decision.
“You will hear from us in due course,” said Paperny.