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Supreme Court of Canada is seen in Ottawa.Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

During a span of several months in early 2006, police wiretapped Carmelo Venneri's phone calls and conducted secret surveillance outside his home, north of Montreal, establishing that the bar manager had become "an important pillar" in supplying a gang with cocaine.

While it was established that Mr. Venneri was a trafficker, he was not a member of the syndicate for whom he dealt cocaine, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled Friday, offering guidance on how courts should define membership in a criminal organization, which brings stiffer penalties.

The highest court still found that Mr. Venneri was guilty of trafficking for the benefit of a gang, for which he could face up to 14 years in jail.

But, in its unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed that Mr. Venneri didn't traffic as a member of the gang, a more serious offence.

The legal concept of gangsterism was introduced in the Criminal Code in 1997 as a way to apply longer sentences against members of organized crime after a bloody turf war between rival biker clubs erupted in Quebec.

Since 2001, the designation can be applied to groups of just three people.

Groups like the Hells Angels or the Mafia are easily identified. But using the designation to prosecute more informal gangs is trickier, especially since "criminal organizations have no incentive to conform to any formal structure recognized in law," the highest court noted in its decision.

"Groups of individuals that operate on an ad hoc basis with little or no organization cannot be said to pose the type of increased risk contemplated by the regime," Mr. Justice Morris Fish wrote in Friday's decision.

While some gangs are not sophisticated, hierarchical or monopolistic organizations, they nonetheless need "cohesiveness and endurance" to create the threat that required Parliament to pass special legislation, Judge Fish wrote.

"Stripped of the features of continuity and structure, 'organized crime' simply becomes all serious crime committed by a group of three or more persons for a material benefit."

In Mr. Venneri's case, the court evidence showed that he was once a buyer for a large gang headed by one Louis-Alain Dauphin, whose men distributed around Montreal cocaine flown in from Kelowna, B.C.

After the provincial police, the Sûreté du Québec, seized 49 kilos of cocaine from two apartments in the fall of 2005, Mr. Dauphin, facing a shortage of drugs and $1-million cash debt, turned to Mr. Venneri and asked whether he could supply them.

Starting in 2006, Mr. Venneri became "an important pillar in supplying" Mr. Dauphin, the trial judge found.

"Venneri operated with a high degree of independence and showed little or no apparent loyalty to Dauphin and his associates. They did not share mutual clients," Judge Fish wrote.

He concluded that the two criminals might be like-minded but they were also autonomous. The fact that they transacted together didn't mean they were part of the same organization and that Mr. Venneri should face a lengthier sentence.

The legal definition of membership in a criminal organization being a recent one, court interpretations have varied.

"Some trial courts have found that very little or no organization is required before a group of individuals are potentially captured by the regime," Judge Fish wrote.

Other courts, he wrote, "properly in my view, have held that while the definition must be applied `flexibly', structure and continuity are still important features that differentiate criminal organizations from other groups of offenders who sometimes act in concert."

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