In a blistering court judgment that triggered waves of elation and relief, the long-running criminal case against six current and former Toronto police officers accused of extortion and assault effectively collapsed Thursday as all charges were stayed on grounds the lengthy delays violated their Charter right to a fair trial.
Billed as one of the biggest police-corruption cases in Canadian history, dating back to accusations that first surfaced in 1996, the charges involved former members of an elite downtown drug squad whose jury trial was to have got under way this month.
Instead, Mr. Justice Ian Nordheimer of Superior Court ruled that there would be no trial, as he rebuked prosecutors for "the glacial pace" of the proceedings and, in particular, the tardiness with which hundreds of thousands of pages of disclosure evidence were provided to the defence.
"I have strived to find any sense of urgency on the part of the prosecution … or any apparent recognition that this case was teetering on the precipice of unreasonable delay," Judge Nordheimer told the court, whose spectators included former Toronto police chief Bill McCormack, leader of the force from 1989 to 1995.
"I can find none on the record before me. Rather, the record creates an impression of complacency, or perhaps a lack of awareness to the situation as it was presenting itself.… A stay of proceedings is entered with respect to all charges."
And with that, the six smartly dressed accused, their relatives and their lawyers stepped out into bright sunshine on downtown Armoury Street to face the television cameras.
In theory the charges could be revived within a year, if an appeal is lodged with the next 30 days. Lead prosecutor Milan Rupic declined comment.
Police spokesman Mark Pugash said Thursday's ruling was being reviewed and that no decision had been made as to what happens next.
The four officers still on the force face charges under the Police Services Act. But lawyer John Rosen, who represented former staff sergeant John Schertzer - the onetime leader of a unit of the drug squad, who retired last year - voiced doubt that those charges would now go forward.
"I can tell you they have been through hell, this has been horrible," Mr. Rosen said of the six.
"They have been demeaned in the media, allegations of all kinds have been made against them.… I think that [leaks to the media]was to put pressure on them to basically give up. And these officers didn't, because they've always maintained their innocence."
Mr. Rosen also said he had no doubt about the status of the six now that charges have been stayed.
"They're innocent, absolutely. Ask the Supreme Court of Canada."
The heart of the case involved a drug enforcement unit that during the 1990s laid thousands of charges involving drugs, weapons and proceeds-of-crime offences.
But in 1998, following accusations that first surfaced two years earlier from the mouths of accused and convicted drug dealers, the force launched a probe of the squad.
Among accusations aired at the officers' preliminary hearing were that they took money from a safety deposit box belonging to a suspect under investigation. It was also alleged that the officers - whose combined police experience totalled 113 years - had lied in court and created bogus search warrants.
Headed up by the RCMP, the task force that probed the corruption allegations is estimated to have cost at least $3-million and generated more than 500,000 pages of evidence. And as the investigation developed, more than 200 charges against accused drug dealers were withdrawn.
Mr. Schertzer, along with Constables Steven Correia, Joseph Miched - also since retired - Ned Maodus, Ray Pollard and Richard Benoit, were initially charged in November, 2000, with theft, fraud, forgery and breach of trust. They were suspended from work for a month, then reinstated to different jobs on the force.
Two years later, those charges were stayed by prosecutors and eventually dropped.
But early in 2004, the six officers were recharged with assault, extortion and attempting to obstruct justice. They were then suspended with pay.
And in June 2006, after a six-month preliminary hearing, the six were ordered to stand trial on the charges, even though in his ruling Mr. Justice James Blacklock said he doubted the credibility of a significant number of Crown witnesses.
In staying the two sets of charges Thursday - Constable Benoit was to have been tried separately, after the other five had been to trial - Judge Nordheimer acknowledged that doing so was an unsatisfactory outcome for the prosecution, the accused and the public.
But overriding that, he said, was the Charter-driven need to bring accused people to trial within "a reasonable time, especially when the charges are serious."
Acting for Mr. Miched, lawyer Peter Brauti concurred.
"Nobody should have to go through something like this for 10 years, I don't care what it is, this was way too long for what they and their families went through," he said after the ruling.
"When this started I was in law school, and I think the [strain on the defendants]really hit home with the judge. It was an incredible amount of stress."
Toronto Police Association president Dave Wilson said much the same.
"For 10 years our officers have been subject to this process and it has torn them apart," he said.
"Now what we're looking for is for the service to treat them with respect and put this behind them."
Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader John Tory, however, called the staying of the charges "an absolute disgrace," accusing the Liberal government of failing to provide adequate resources for the justice system.
"There should be some sort of an inquiry into the justice system and the fact that there are so many charges of so many different kinds being dropped in so many different places for so many reasons," he said.
"It's proof that the system is not working, it's eroding faith in the system and I think it's affecting public safety and respect for the rule of law negatively."
Ontario NDP justice critic Peter Kormos also laid blame on the government of Dalton McGuinty.
"Our justice system is in chaos and the McGuinty Liberals are ignoring the problem," he said. "It's despicable that the biggest corruption investigation in the history of Canadian policing was thrown out because of unreasonable delays."
With reports from Murray Campbell and Karen Howlett