Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, May 25, 2002

Criminal law, common sense seem far apart

Dave Brown
The Ottawa Citizen

As a parent, here's your problem. It's 11 p.m. and a police officer shows up at your door and orders you to get your 12-year-old son out of bed and dressed because he's arresting him.

What do you do?

An Ottawa family went through that experience and seven months later is still angry.

The arrest was based on a complaint made about the boy's behaviour in a home while trick-or-treating earlier that night.

It was alleged he pushed his way in and scooped more candy than he should have. There were also allegations from an 11-year-old boy that the accused was a bully.

Calling on my own parenting instincts when I first heard from the angry father, my first reaction was that I would tell the officer he would have to shoot me first.

"You'd be wrong," said criminal lawyer Bruce Engel yesterday.

Taking a 12-year-old out of his home after 11 p.m., alone and in handcuffs, is not outside the limits of the law.

"If he's 12, he falls under the Young Offenders Act," said Mr. Engel. "If he's 11, he's a child and in that case you could say no."

Mr. Engel's advice: "Co-operate. You could be flirting with a charge of obstruction. These things can easily become complicated by improper reaction. If it gets complicated, it can get long and expensive.

"They (parents) should chalk it up to experience and put it behind them. It could have been worse."

He offered another reminder.

"People don't realize it, but the penalty for break and enter can be life. It never happens, but it's in there. A home is a castle. It's a very serious crime."

When I first heard of the incident, the parents were in the process of objecting and it seemed a good opportunity to watch the police complaints process in action.

By today's standards, a police service has six months to respond to a complaint and it took six months for the force's professional standards section to get a report back to the family. It cleared the arresting officer of any wrongdoing.

It's a reminder of the power of police. The boy was taken out in handcuffs, alone, and placed in a police cruiser. His mother was brought along later in a second car described in the complaint report as performing "backup." Mother and son were driven home at 2 a.m.

Although the officer when cuffing the boy said he was being arrested for break, enter and theft, the charges weren't pursued.

The complaint closer was signed by police staff lawyer Vince Westwick. Involving a lawyer in the complaint process seemed aggressively defensive, but Mr. Westwick said he saw no problems.

He was one of five people who sat around a table with me Wednesday, all saying reporting the incident would not be fair.

Restrictions created by the Young Offenders Act, plus privacy concerns, made it impossible for them to tell their side of the story, they said.

The closing report said there was "evidence" to back up the officer's "affirmative action," but they couldn't say what that was. The parents weren't told either.

Others around the table were Sgt. Mark Houldsworth and Staff Sgt. Richard Webber of the professional standards section -- the department of the police that investigates the police.

Staff Sgt. Léo Janveau handles media relations, and the youth expert was Louise Logue. Her proper title is co-ordinator of youth intervention and diversion. Her credentials include a degree in behavioural pharmacology. She's a certified addictions counsellor and a registered nurse. She talks about things like "criminogenic needs."

If the parents aren't happy with the six-page single-spaced Westwick report, they can take their complaint to the next level. The Ontario Civilian Commission on Police Services (OCCOPS) is an overview not connected to police. But the parents have been so upset by the experience, they no longer trust anything with the word "police" in it.

If nothing else, says the dad, this was a case of overreaction. It's wrong to traumatize a child based on a verbal complaint from another child.

The reason given by police for the late hour was that the officer answered the call about the candy rap earlier, but had to handle other calls before he could get around to the arrest.

Why didn't the officer have a youth crime specialist look into the matter the next day?

Was there fear of flight? Would the kid jump into a car and head for Vancouver?

Simple answer to that is: He didn't have to. There seems to be no necessary connection between criminal law and common sense.

Dave Brown is the Citizen's senior editor. Send e-mail to dbrown@thecitizen.southam.ca Read previous columns at www.ottawacitizen.com

© Copyright 2002 The Ottawa Citizen