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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Justice system 1, predators 0

The Parole Board of Canada has revoked the statutory release of a Windsor man.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada brought down its verdict in a case from this province known as R. vs. Mills. — SaltWire File Photo
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

The short version?

If you go looking online to start a sexual relationship with a child, you might meet a police officer instead and end up having your own words used against you.

And the courts say that’s perfectly fine.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada brought down its verdict in a case from this province known as R. vs. Mills.

It was a case about what lengths police officers are allowed to go to when they are trying to catch internet predators.

The facts can be summed up pretty quickly: the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary set up a fake account on Facebook and Hotmail, creating an imaginary 14-year-old Leann Power. About a month later, Sean Patrick Mills got in touch with the fake Leann, and began sending messages, including a picture of his penis. When he made arrangements to meet her at a St. John’s park, he was arrested. (Keep in mind, that was almost seven years ago now, in May 2012.)

Since then, the case has been wending its way through this province’s courts, on its way to the Supreme Court.

All of the court appearances have centred around one issue: whether or not Mills’ privacy was infringed by the particular sting that the police used to catch him.

Four similar cases in this province have been stalled, pending the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Lawyers for Mills argued that the police were intercepting communications, and needed a warrant to do that. Without such a warrant, they suggested, Mills’ online interaction with the imaginary 14-year-old shouldn’t be used against him in court.

In one way or another, all of the Supreme Court judges who heard the case felt that Mills’ own communications could be used against him. They had different reasons, and one actually thought that Mills’ right to privacy had been infringed — although not to the point that the evidence shouldn’t be used against him.

It comes down to a simple but crucial distinction: the police weren’t intercepting a private communication, because they were actually a party to it. If they had been listening in electronically on a conversation between a grown man and a real 14-year-old, they would have needed that warrant.

When you’re whipping words out into the internet’s great beyond, you can’t expect privacy rights to protect you. And when you’re communicating with a 14-year-old, there’s no way that you should be able to be ignorant of the fact that you might be talking to the police instead.

But when you talk to an essentially anonymous stranger on the internet — someone who might or might not be who they say they are, in a whole host of ways — you can’t say that your privacy was infringed because they turned out not to be who you were expecting.

When you’re whipping words out into the internet’s great beyond, you can’t expect privacy rights to protect you. And when you’re communicating with a 14-year-old, there’s no way that you should be able to be ignorant of the fact that you might be talking to the police instead.

As a deterrent, it’s a fine thing. Police officers will continue masquerading as potential victims, and men will continue to get arrested.

If the stings had been struck down, chances are that the federal government would have to make a legal change that would allow their use in some other way. It doesn’t mean that every case isn’t its own individual set of facts; how police act in stings, and the ways they correspond with suspected abusers, still have to be examined by the courts to ensure the stings don’t cross the line into entrapment, for example.

But there are just too few tools for catching internet predators, and too many of them out there, fishing their way through the social media accounts of young, easily-manipulated children and teenagers.

Perhaps it’s more than fair that sometimes, the manipulation goes both ways.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky


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