Two decades ago, Canadian police came up with a novel trick to get a suspect to confess to a crime. They called it the Mr. Big technique. On Thursday, the Supreme Court passed judgement on Mr. Big. It should have entirely outlawed the practice, but it did at least place much tighter limits on its use – up to now, Mr. Big confessions were extracted in what the court describes as “a legal vacuum.” In that vacuum, police did some highly questionable things.
Nelson Lloyd Hart, the man at the centre of the case that made its way to the Supreme Court, was an unemployed, socially isolated man living on welfare. His two daughters had drowned; he was suspected of having caused the deaths. Police targetted him for a Mr. Big operation. Undercover officers befriended him. They gave him a job driving a truck. They bought him clothes and took him to nice restaurants. They also eventually told him that they and his job were part of a criminal organization.
After a few months, Mr. Hart was told he could participate in a scheme that would pay him at least $20,000. But first, the officers posing as gangsters said, he had to meet and gain the trust of the organization’s boss: Mr. Big.
And Mr. Big, they said, had found something problematic in Mr. Hart’s past. To remain part of the group, he’d have to come clean. On meeting Mr. Big, the suspect admitted that his daughters had died, but that it had been an accident. Mr. Big told him not to lie. After further prodding, Mr. Hart eventually confessed to the fake crime boss. Four months after the operation began, Mr. Hart was arrested and convicted based on that confession. Under the court’s new rules, that confession is no longer admissible.
In Mr. Big operations, police are not merely observing a crime or overhearing a confession. They are creating a fake criminal enterprise, engineering crimes, inducing suspects to say things in return for money, telling suspects that their organization kills “rats,” and indirectly threatening violence. In one case cited by the court, “undercover officers simulated an assault on a woman who had crossed the criminal organization. During the beating, officers threatened to kill the woman, her husband and her infant child.” When dealing with a group acting like the mafia or a biker gang, who wouldn’t “confess”?
Mr. Big still lives. But thanks to the Supreme Court’s new rules, he is much diminished.