Yellowknife drugs case collapses over legality of traffic stop
An alleged Yellowknife drug trafficker arrested at gunpoint with cocaine and $50,000 is now free as RCMP failed to follow arrest, search and detainment procedures.
The 27-year-old man, arrested in the parking lot of Forrest Drive’s Circle K convenience store in April 2020, can now apply to have the seized cash returned to him.
“My understanding is the Crown will be consenting to the return of all of it, and that should be happening by the end of this week at the latest,” said Calgary defence lawyer Kim Arial.
During an NWT Supreme Court hearing on March 29, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada decided to pull all remaining charges against the man.
“The Crown withdrew charges for trafficking cocaine, possession for the purposes of trafficking, and possession of proceeds of crime,” said prosecutor Brendan Green. “He no longer faces any charges and there were no co-accused.”
Court documents show another man found in the passenger seat of the suspect’s SUV was taken into custody – his pickup truck was parked close by and the pair were engaged in “suspicious activity” – and two small baggies were discovered containing small amounts of cocaine. That man was never charged.
“The case turned on the legality of a traffic stop that became an investigative detention and then an arrest,” continued the prosecutor, responding to questions from Cabin Radio.
Last week’s hearing focused on the legality of that stop.
“After the first day of evidence,” said Green, “the Crown concluded that the court was likely to find a breach of [the suspect’s] rights, which would have led to the exclusion of the evidence subsequently obtained.”
In documents filed for last week’s hearing, defence lawyer Arial explored what she considered a discrepancy between officers’ explanation for the traffic stop and subsequent police actions.
The entire back hatch of her client’s Jeep Cherokee was covered in road dirt, obscuring the licence plate. However, the officers’ notes indicate one of them recognized the vehicle and driver from undercover surveillance the previous year.
Whatever the motivation to begin the traffic stop, it “did not rise to reasonable suspicion” as expressed in the Charter, Arial stated.
Police notes indicate the driver appeared nervous, took a while before taking the vehicle out of reverse gear and into park, and had no driver’s licence. He also mumbled the name of his passenger, who had made a quick exit upon the arrival of police.
When asked, the passenger could not name the driver, who was supposedly a friend he was chatting with after a chance encounter.
“While exiting the Jeep, [the suspect] reached into his waistband, prompting [the constable] to draw his service pistol and point in [the suspect’s] face,” stated the notice of motion. “He complied with the demand to show his both his hands, consequently dropping a baggie containing cocaine.”
The suspect was told he could phone a lawyer and that he did not have to say anything, but was given “no further information about his rights,” stated Arial in the document.
The suspect was found to have roughly 98 grams of cocaine in his truck, hoodie and the baggie he dropped. Also found was $2,125 and a cell phone.
Subsequently, RCMP obtained a search warrant for the suspect’s residence in south-central Yellowknife, where more than a kilogram of cannabis, 11.5 grams of magic mushrooms, nine grams of “shatter” or pot resin, a small amount of cocaine, and nine cellphones were seized.
A half-dozen RCMP officers were involved in the investigation and there were several pre-trial conferences. The two arresting constables have since been transferred to Ottawa and Halifax.
“It was a warrantless search by questioning [the suspect] about ‘what’s going on’ to further their drug investigation,” Arial stated in court documents. “They furthered the unlawful search by opening the door of the vehicle without requisite grounds.
“It was an unlawful detention and arrest … since the arrest was unlawful, the search had no lawful basis.”
The lawyer argued RCMP had violated four sections of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In response to an inquiry from Cabin Radio, Arial said this wasn’t the first case in Yellowknife in which the Crown has discontinued charges mid-trial. RCMP officers she said, had a practice of routinely conducting pat-down searches of individuals about whom an officer is merely suspicious.
“From my perspective, this appears to be a systemic issue in Yellowknife,” she said. “Hopefully this case will serve as a reminder to police that their powers must be kept in check, and that the rights and freedoms protected by our Charter matter.”
Yellowknife RCMP had not responded to a request for comment by the time of publication.