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Fleeing justice in Canada

Most people are familiar with the old Hollywood cliché of the wanted criminal making a mad dash for the state line to evade justice.

Most people are familiar with the old Hollywood cliché of the wanted criminal making a mad dash for the state line to evade justice.

The United States has long since closed that loophole making it a federal crime to flee one jurisdiction with the intent of avoiding prosecution. Technically, Georgia may not be able to try a person for a crime committed in Montana, but the feds can get him for evading justice.

Most Canadians probably think that is the case here too. It is not.

I got to thinking about this in court Monday. It was yet another uneventful docket day at the provincial court and, as such, my mind started wandering to legal topics I find interesting if not necessarily newsworthy.

Typically, there are a few people who do not show up for court. If the absent defendant is represented by a lawyer, sometimes a judge will allow an adjournment to give the attorney a chance to contact the client. Often, this kind of adjournment is accompanied by a bench warrant hold, which will come into effect if the person does not show up the next time. If the accused is not represented, the judge normally issues a warrant effective immediately.

Usually, within a few weeks, or months at the most, these people are back in court. Sometimes police pick them up on the warrant itself, but frequently it is for some new offence. For the most part, it seems, defendants stick pretty close to home and it's only a matter of time before they run afoul of the law again, even if it is just a traffic ticket.

But, what if you wanted to evade justice on a more permanent basis? How easy would it be to simply disappear and not face the consequences? It is probably easier than you might think, at least if you are able to keep your nose clean.

In Canada, most warrants are only valid in the jurisdiction of the issuing judge. That doesn't mean you can't be arrested in another province, but in a country as big as this one, it becomes a matter of practicality. For example, if you are arrested in Ontario on a Saskatchewan warrant and the Saskatchewan Crown wants you returned to face the charges, the police then need to get an out-of-province warrant signed by an Ontario judge or justice within six days.

For the most serious crimes, particularly violent ones, this is almost always the case, but given the cost of transporting prisoners, authorities frequently won't bother. Of course, it is well worth the cost for high profile fugitives such as murderers, kidnappers and armed robbers, but imagine the crippling impact on the justice system if it was applied evenly to every shoplifter, mischief-maker and pot-smoker.

This became a big issue a few years ago for the Vancouver Police Department. In 2005, VPD conducted a three-month study that identified 726 fugitives, the vast majority from Alberta and Ontario, accounting for 1,582 non-returnable warrants and 2,527 criminal charges. Shockingly, not all of these were petty criminals, 21 per cent faced out-of-province charges involving weapons and violence. Six individuals had more than 100 previous convictions.

At the time, various solutions were floated including creating a national air-transfer system or using video technology to try people remotely. The former would simply be too costly. The latter is almost certainly unconstitutional.

Jamie Graham, VPD chief of police at the time, wanted Parliament to pass a US-style fugitive law. Canada has passed loophole-filling laws before as in the case of making it a crime to refuse a breathalyzer test, which carries the same penalties as drunk driving.

It did not happen, which prompted the City of Vancouver to initiate its own "Con-Air" program in 2008, although it still barely scratches the surface targeting only the worst offenders. As of 2012, the project had transported 98 suspects back to their province of origin. In 2012, British Columbia extended the program province-wide.

So far, BC is the only province to take matters into its own hands.

In this day and age of instant communications high-speed travel and a unified national criminal code, the idea of border-hopping fugitives escaping justice seems somewhat archaic, but it is alive and well in Canada.

Those considering it, however, should beware if they ever want to come home. There is no statute of limitations on an arrest warrant in Canada.