Michael Ford (post until Oct. 31/19)
Criminal

Fine line between promoting accountability and vigilantism

Aaron Harnett
AaronHarnett
Online “hacktivist” groups like Anonymous create more issues than they solve by getting involved in criminal cases, says Toronto criminal lawyer Aaron Harnett.

“Crowd-sourced case solving is a great way to ruin a proper criminal investigation,” he says.

“It has the potential to interfere with the gathering of uncontaminated evidence from witnesses; it can cause nervous witnesses to become too afraid to cooperate with the police at all; it can cause the public to have unreasonable expectations of law enforcement behaviour; and it can cause a loss of confidence in the administration of justice.”

The online group received a groundswell of support recently as it set out to find answers in the case of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons, who killed herself after she was allegedly gang-raped at a summer party, then tormented over the incident, the Globe and Mail reports.

Anonymous claimed it had found the four young men responsible, the Globe reports, noting online postings attributed to the group claimed it solved the case in less than two hours.

“In the same way laypersons often now foolishly believe that forensic labs are standing by 24/7 to instantly identify trace items of evidence, TV viewers expect cases to be cracked in the time it takes to watch an episode of CSI,” says Harnett.

“There may be some cases when the public can meaningfully contribute to an ongoing investigation, such as providing police with videos or pictures from their cell phone cameras, or provide a sample of DNA for suspect exclusion,” he says.

“Crime Stoppers services, tip lines and rewards are valuable resources that have an important role to play. However, self-appointed sheriffs who stumble around pointing fingers run the risk of falsely accusing innocents, and causing mistrials by revealing information which is typically not permitted in a criminal trial.”

Harnett says a balance must be struck between aiding the system and attempting to take matters into your own hands.

“In the rare case where alleged corruption or incompetence gives rise to a strongly-held belief that an investigation is being improperly shelved, public outcry is legitimate and helpful,” he says. “However, a fine line needs to be walked between vigilantism and promoting accountability.”

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