In the United States, when a person of even the most minor public interest is arrested, police and prosecutors often arrange to stage a humiliating spectacle known as the perp walk. The accused is frogmarched in front of the cameras in handcuffs, on a contrived walk into the courthouse. The media are on hand, having been previously informed of the time and place of the viewing. In the U.S., it’s the norm for an accused to get this treatment. In Canada, it’s almost unheard of.
Unlike their American counterparts, Canadian police and prosecutors do not hold up their catch, like a fisherman displaying a prize marlin. They usually bring him in quietly through a side door or an underground garage. That’s as it should be. Our legal system is founded on the idea that everyone is innocent until proven guilty; forcing an accused to go through a perp walk debases the innocent, warps the justice system and coarsens us all.
This week, three men involved in last year’s fatal train derailment and fire in Lac-Mégantic, Que., were arrested and charged. The lawyer for the train driver, Thomas Harding, had for months advised police that, should they ever wish to detain his client, a long-time local resident, he would voluntarily – and quietly – turn himself in on request. Instead, on Monday, a Sûreté du Québec SWAT team descended on his home, making a great show of his capture. The next day, he and the other two accused, railway employees Jean Demaître and Richard Labrie, were each released on $15,000 bail.
But not before all three were subjected to a rarity in Canada: the American-style perp walk. All are charged with counts of criminal negligence causing death in connection with last year’s accident. On Tuesday, they were marched, in handcuffs, through an assembled crowd of cameras and into the courthouse.
The presumption of innocence is more than an abstract legal notion. It is very real, or should be. The purpose of an arrest is detain someone so they can be charged and brought to trial. It should never be about humiliation. Nor is it about punishment. Neither police nor Crown prosecutors have the power to punish. Only courts get to find guilt and only courts impose punishment. Unless and until a court has found you guilty, you aren’t, and the Canadian justice system should always treat you as such.