Criminal Law

Stigma of criminal activity lingers: Dunn

By Jennifer Brown, Senior Editor

A criminal conviction brings an element of social stigma to those involved, but when information can live forever online, even being charged can affect your reputation indefinitely, says Calgary criminal lawyer Greg Dunn.

“It’s become a much more perilous landscape to navigate to avoid criminal law stigma,” says Dunn, principal of Dunn & Associates Criminal Defence Lawyers. “It’s not just the criminal record now, but even just being accused takes on an element of stigma on its own.”

Social media has added an element of concern to those who may find themselves in trouble with the law, Dunn tells

“With social media, a single tweet is screen-captured and shared across the internet. One misstep can prove fatal for individuals resulting in employment and social consequences,” says Dunn.

A significant factor in controlling the message around a client’s case is the proliferation of information shared in what was once a situation where only certain media outlets reported on charges laid by police and courtroom proceedings.

“Part of the difficulty is we’re getting amateur journalists sitting in the courtroom tweeting or posting on Facebook as opposed to journalists who have experience in criminal law matters,” he says. “As a defence lawyer you often do two jobs — you strive to convince a judge or jury on the strength of your case, and you strive to manage the damage for your client in the public sphere.”

When it comes to helping clients manage their reputation while going through a criminal matter, Dunn says there are steps he can take, but it is limited based on the situation and the level of media scrutiny the case receives.

“With a journalist, I can talk to them, and if they have been around courtrooms and understand admissibility and credibility of evidence and witnesses, that’s one thing, but you don’t always have that level of professional filter in place in terms of that information being disseminated to the public in an accurate and responsible way,” he says.

Dunn says it is almost impossible for a lawyer to scour every aspect of social media to try to protect a client’s interest during a trial or after they have been charged with an offence. However, in some cases, giving interviews to certain members of the media can help a client in terms of public perception.

“Some lawyers say a case is won or lost in the court of public opinion and so you will see many lawyers who give interviews and they manage their client’s interests that way. Others do not talk at all. It depends on who you work for and what school of thought you come from — it’s often dictated by the type of case you have.”

Dunn also points to the increased demand for criminal record checks not only for new employment requirements but also for volunteer positions as examples of where an examination of an individual’s background is under greater scrutiny.

“It used to be relatively rare to have a criminal record check to land a job, but now it’s become almost ubiquitous in that almost every employer is looking for a criminal record check,” says Dunn. “You need a criminal record check to volunteer at your kid’s school or to work at a daycare or with the elderly. There are also vulnerable sector checks that consider charges that were not prosecuted, and outstanding charges that may show up in vulnerable record checks.”

Meanwhile, the federal government has taken steps to help certain groups previously convicted to have their criminal records expunged.

“When you look at the trajectory of criminal law in Canada you see two divergent paths — one is the path of the government decriminalizing marijuana and passing legislation to expunge records for cannabis possession charges, and expungement for convictions related to the old bathhouse laws, yet the private sphere has become increasingly paranoid about having a criminal record check,” says Dunn.

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