A major drug trafficking case was blown out of Supreme Court on Friday when a judge ruled RCMP did not properly obtain a search warrant for a hotel room where they found just under 200 grams of crack cocaine.
This was the final chapter of a legal drama that involved allegations of human trafficking, a highway collision with a bison, and cocaine shipped from Alberta for sale in Yellowknife and Behchokǫ̀.
While admitting police were faced with a “chaotic and confusing” situation at the Chateau Nova Hotel in December 2017, Justice Shannon Smallwood ruled the Charter rights of two Alberta men were violated significantly enough to justify excluding a search warrant.
“The evidence obtained in this case – the cocaine – is highly reliable and relevant evidence that is critical to the Crown’s case. The charges the accused face are serious. Drug offences are serious and society has a significant interest in having these offences determined on their merits,” said Smallwood, as defendants Mahmoud Taliani and Quintin Glasgow-Brownlow listened by phone from Alberta.
“This court has been concerned about the trafficking of cocaine and the offence has been treated seriously by the courts in this jurisdiction for many years. Balanced against this is the importance that the accused’s rights be respected,” the judge said.
Smallwood said the consequences for the accused if convicted were high, with both possibly facing lengthy prison sentences.
“Having considered the seriousness of the Charter-infringing state conduct, the impact of the breach on the Charter-protected interests of the accused, and society’s interests in the adjudication of the case on its merits, a judge must determine if the admission of the evidence obtained by the Charter breach would bring the administration of justice into disrepute,” she said.
“The conduct of the police was serious and the impact of the breach on the accused was significant. The value of the evidence is considerable and it is reliable evidence.
“The admission of the evidence would bring the administration of justice into disrepute. For these reason, I find the evidence … should be excluded.”
Smallwood noted while RCMP did obtain a warrant on December 1, 2017 after surveilling two hotels over a couple of days, the grounds establishing a link to room 114 – where crack cocaine had been packaged in tiny amounts for street-level sale – were “tenuous.”
With no further evidence to call, Crown prosecutor Brendan Green asked the judge to find the pair not guilty.
That brought to a close a case that originally saw five people charged with a variety of offences.
In the end, there was only a conviction for obstruction of justice for one of those involved.
Justice ‘beyond reproach’
At the start of the trial in February, an agreed statement of facts declared Taliani, 30, of Calgary, and Glasgow-Brownlow, 18, of Edmonton were in the Chateau Nova hotel room on the night of December 1, 2017, when RCMP showed up with a search warrant.
The pair admitted officers found just under 200 grams of crack cocaine, mostly stashed in a portable CD player.
Lawyers for Taliani and Glasgow-Brownlow – Jamel Chadi and Peter Harte, respectively – argued the hotel room search was unlawful because police wrongly stated the evidence they had in order to convince a justice of the peace to grant a search warrant to enter the room.
The investigation that led to the pair’s arrest actually began on November 30, when the Saskatoon Police Service’s vice squad notified RCMP that a woman who worked as an escort reported she was being held against her will by men in Yellowknife.
Officers surveilled the hotel and rescued the woman, who was subsequently placed on a flight back to Saskatoon after providing information for the investigation.
A man police charged with human trafficking – believed to be the first time that charge had been laid in the NWT – was discharged after a preliminary inquiry. The woman, who had been found by police at the Northern Lites Motel, subsequently recanted her original claim.
The court earlier heard the minor detail that the group had been driving to Yellowknife in late November 2017 when they hit a bison just past Fort Providence. The car was abandoned and they hitched a ride to the city with a truck driver.
On Friday, Smallwood said the impact of a Charter breach on a criminal case can range from being technical to “profoundly intrusive,” and people have a greater expectation of privacy in a house or a hotel room than a vehicle.
“The more serious the impact of the accused’s interests, the greater the risk the admission of the evidence will bring the administration of justice into disrepute [in the eyes of the public],” she said.
“In serious cases, there is an interest in ensuring that the justice system is beyond reproach.”