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'Reprehensible' tweet by Calgary police chief condemned by legal community

cbc.ca logo cbc.ca 2020-05-14 Meghan Grant
a man wearing a helmet posing for the camera: Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld is facing criticism after a tweet suggesting people charged with first-degree murder should not be granted bail. © Mike Symington/CBC Calgary police Chief Mark Neufeld is facing criticism after a tweet suggesting people charged with first-degree murder should not be granted bail.

Calgary's police chief is defending a tweet he posted which appeared to be critical of a judge's decision to release an accused killer on bail.

The social media post was deleted three days after it was published and just hours after CBC News interviewed the city's top cop.

On Friday, Victor Braima, 23, who is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Carrot River, Sask., farmer Sheldon Wolf, 47, was released on strict conditions by Court of Queen's Bench Justice Bryan Mahoney.

The conditions include that the accused wear an ankle monitoring device paid for by his family while under 24-hour house arrest at his parents' home.

The reasons for the judge's decision as well as the details presented at the bail hearing are protected by a publication ban which means the judge can not publicly explain his decision. 

"My intention with the tweet was not to be critical of the courts or to comment on a particular case," said Neufeld.

'If somebody was offended … I regret it'

Chief Mark Neufeld retweeted a Postmedia story about the case with the headline "Calgary murder suspect granted bail on strict conditions."

The city's top cop then posed this question in the same tweet: "So ... just wondering (for a friend) what type of offences/offender would be refused bail then?"

Despite posting a link to the story in the same tweet as his comment, the chief says nothing he wrote "was in relation to that case specifically." 

As for whether he regrets the tweet, Neufeld said: "If somebody was offended by that, then absolutely I regret it."

'Inappropriate' for chief to comment: retired judge

"I was commenting in generalities but I do appreciate that the retweeted news story was in relation to a particular case that was before the court so yeah, I do understand how people interpreted it that way," he said.

Retired Justice Ged Hawco says a publication ban is "all the more reason why this is perhaps inappropriate for the chief to speculate."

Mahoney, according to Hawco, is a respected judge who "takes matters under consideration before he makes a decision."

"In my opinion the chief of police should not be entering into any discussions in respect to ongoing matters," said Hawco,

"Nor, with the greatest respect to him, should he be commenting on a judge's decision with respect to bail," said Hawco in an interview with CBC News.

'Utterly reprehensible' tweet

The tweet got the attention of several judges as well as defence lawyers, including Kelsey Sitar who deconstructed the chief's social media post in her own Twitter thread, calling the tweet "utterly reprehensible."

Sitar, who also instructs criminal law at the University of Calgary, says there are several problems with what the chief wrote.

First of all, Sitar points out, police are supposed to have a policy against commenting on active cases. She adds that judges are not allowed to defend their decisions and in this case, Mahoney's reasons for granting bail are protected by a publication ban. 

The defence lawyer also points out Neufeld comes across as suggesting people charged with first-degree murder should not be released pending trial, but that goes against the Supreme Court of Canada which says there are no charges off limits for bail. 

"Bail is the cardinal rule in Canada and that does not change based on what offence you're charged with," says Sitar. "We presume that people will get released; detention is to be the exception."

People trust the chief: Sitar

Releasing someone charged with a crime is not black and white, says Sitar. It's not, be freed into the community or held in custody — the grey area is the range of conditions available, like house arrest, curfews and monitoring systems

"There's a lot of members of the public who will ... just blindly agree with the chief because they think anybody charged with murder is already guilty and and should be in custody," said Sitar.

"When you have that type of power and authority the public is going to believe they can trust your judgment."

Neufeld says his tweet referred to several recent cases involving serious and violent crimes where he had information that investigators felt the people charged were high risks to reoffend.

He said in the cases he's referring to, the individuals ultimately ended up receiving bail under circumstances that "I would say surprised the investigators."

Lawyer association considering complaint

There are three factors judges consider when deciding whether to release someone on bail.

First, they consider whether an accused person is likely to show up for their court appearances. Secondly, a judge will weigh factors related to the risk a person will commit a crime while on bail. And, finally, if the administration of justice would fall into disrepute if the accused person was to be released.

Braima's lawyer Andrea Urquhart says she won't comment on the chief's social media post as the case is before the courts. 

The Calgary Defence Lawyer Association says it is considering filing a complaint with the police commission, according to president Ian Savage.

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