When the RCMP announced the first batch of arrests resulting from an investigation dubbed “Project Clemenza” back in 2014, it proudly boasted the force had intercepted more than a million private cellphone messages through the use of wireless signal interception techniques.
The techniques, in part, had allowed it to dismantle two groups operating within the Montreal Mafia, eventually leading to dozens of arrests for charges including drug-trafficking, assault, extortion, kidnapping and arson.
But now federal prosecutors are set to seek a stay of proceedings in the cases on Tuesday, a decision that is being linked back to those intercepted cellphone messages. Though the Crown is not required to divulge why it will cease prosecuting a case, it’s believed one of the factors behind the decision is the RCMP’s refusal to disclose how it was able to intercept the Blackberry messages in the first place.
It’s a decision that not only raises privacy concerns, but one that could also further undermine the public’s trust in the criminal justice system, experts said on Monday.
“If that is the core reason, it’s a really serious problem,” said Christopher Parsons, a research associate with the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
Across the country, Parsons said, law enforcement agencies are using devices known as “IMSI catchers” or as they’re called in Canada, “mobile device identifiers.”
The devices, widely believed to have been used during Project Clemenza, essentially mimic a cellular tower, allowing law enforcement to gather information and communications from nearby phones that connect to it.
But police have been hesitant to release information about how the devices work, Parsons said.
If the Project Clemenza cases had gone to trial, the Crown would have had to reveal the full extent to which the RCMP relied on the devices, exposing the technique to defence lawyers rightfully trying to determine exactly how accurate and reliable they are.
“I think the police are mindful that these devices are challenging to develop and operate and may not sustain under cross-examination,” Parsons said. “They want to be able to continue using them, and if they’re found to be significantly flawed devices, then their perceived value and utility may decrease.”
For Pierre de Champlain, a former RCMP intelligence analyst and author of books about organized crime, the decision to stay the charges is also likely to have troubling consequences in Montreal.
“It will certainly further undermine people’s trust in the criminal justice system,” de Champlain said, adding that anyone should be concerned when the prosecution decides to abandon cases against people with links to organized crime.
De Champlain said it seems as though, is some ways, Project Clemenza is becoming the equivalent of the SharQc trial, in which several alleged Hells Angels members had their charges stayed due to unreasonable delays.
The news probably also came as a relief to a Montreal Mafia that’s currently in a state of disarray, de Champlain added, and could give those expected to see their charges stayed a newfound “sense of invisibility.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “society is the real loser in all of this.”