Yves Boisvert is a columnist with La Presse.
At one point in the spring of 2009, all but two of the Hells Angels in Quebec were behind bars. They had been nabbed in a sweeping police operation against the biker gang, dubbed Operation SharQc, one of the biggest police raids in North America. More than 150 Hells Angels and associates were arrested; charges of multiple murders, gangsterism and drug trafficking were laid. Was it the end for the notorious gang?
Six and a half years later, most of those arrested are free. Only one case, of five men facing murder and conspiracy charges, went to trial, and two weeks ago Quebec Superior Court Justice James Brunton declared a stay of proceedings against them. Now, only two accused remain to face trial. What happened?
In the case before him two weeks ago, Justice Brunton blamed Crown prosecutors for delaying the disclosure of relevant evidence that should have been handed to the defence four years ago. This amounted to a "serious abuse of process," he ruled (the Crown is weighing an appeal of his decision). In 2011, Justice Brunton had ordered a stay of proceedings for about 30 people charged in the sweep, citing lengthy delays.
Beyond the legal intricacies, it is clear that the judicial system was simply not able to tackle such an ambitious task. In the just-ended trial of the five men, jurors were told it would last "between 12 to 18 months." (Any volunteers?)
The justice system has yet to adapt to the reality of megainvestigations, and resulting megatrials. Why spend millions of dollars on lengthy police operations if they result in cases that drag on for years, or never get to trial?
For Quebec police, Operation SharQc was a success story that had been unthinkable only 10 years before. From 1994 to 2002, more then 100 people died in the Quebec biker wars over control of the drug trade. The Hells Angels had won the battle against their rivals, and it seemed they were about to wage a war against the state. Two prison guards were shot dead on their way home, just to terrify authorities. Prosecutors were intimidated. There were plans to kill judges. Two members of the public were killed, including a 10-year-old boy who died when a car exploded on the street where he was playing.
A federal anti-gang law was brought in, and Quebec's three major police forces pulled together their top investigators in an unprecedented effort to take on the organized gangs. It paid off. A first operation in 2001 resulted in almost 100 arrests and many convictions for serious offences, paving the way for Operation SharQc.
It is true that 104 of those arrested in the 2009 sweep pleaded guilty, but often to lesser charges, such as conspiracy to commit murder. Although 39 drew prison terms ranging from 15 to 25 years, and two got life sentences, most served relatively short sentences.
The overall result is a judicial failure. The prosecution was not able to deliver what it promised to the public.
Police investigations have reached a new level, focusing not only on small-time criminals but the upper levels. When these accused arrive in court, the system should be prepared to judge them efficiently and fairly. One lesson from Operation SharQc might to be lay fewer but more specific charges against individuals rather than throwing the whole Criminal Code at them.
More importantly, it raises a fundamental question: Is the Canadian judicial system up to dealing with the challenges of sophisticated organized crime, international criminality and terrorism? The jury is still out.