Why Were Brampton Police So Quick to Arrest Defence Lawyer Laura Liscio?

(I wrote and posted this article in the Huffington Post on February 17, 2015)
Laura Liscio, a criminal defence lawyer, was arrested in Brampton Court on Thursday, February 12, allegedly for passing narcotics to her in-custody client.

According to many accounts, police arrested her in full view of the public, while she was in her lawyers’ attire, about to enter a courtroom and represent her client. They handcuffed her. They paraded her through the courthouse, marched her out the front doors and took her to the police station. It was a humiliating arrest, from officers who must have contemplated the impact of such an arrest, not just on Ms. Liscio, but on the reputation of all criminal defence lawyers.

Peel Region Police claim that Ms. Liscio that drugs were found in the change of clothes that Ms. Liscio brought for a client in custody. They arrested her soon thereafter.

I don’t know Laura Liscio personally.

In any case, this article is not really about her.

It is about how she was arrested her. And how that arrest differs from the way other actors in the criminal justice system, such as police officers, are treated when suspected of having committed an offence.

Peel Regional Police deny many of the details of the arrest. But others, including her lawyer, confirm the assertions described above.

The arrest is particularly objectionable because this kind of public humiliation seems to be reserved for criminal defence lawyers (and other “bad guys”). It’s not how officers generally arrest other officers.

Now, you may ask, “What was she doing, bringing a change of clothes for her client?” And, “What is wrong with a criminal lawyer being quickly arrested for possession for the purpose of trafficking narcotics?”

Let’s first look at the issue of obtaining civilian clothes for inmates, and then at the options available to the police when they believe that someone has committed an offence.

Inmates and Civilian Clothes

When accused persons who are detained in custody are transferred to court, they are often brought in their prison gear: their orange or blue jumpsuits. Most people don’t want to appear before a judge or jury in these jumpsuits. They want to give their evidence, their side of their story, or to listen to the evidence against them, in their own clothes. They want to be presentable. They want to feel as human beings. They don’t want to dress as if a guilty verdict has already been issued against them. This is perfectly understandable.

Usually, the families of these detained accused can make it to the detention centre and deliver some clothes to them, ahead of their hearing. But sometimes that does not happen. Some detainees don’t have family or friends close by. Often family members attend the jail, only to be turned away, because there is a lock down, a job action, not enough staff on duty, or for a myriad of other reasons.

In such cases, a family member or a friend may bring the clothes to the court house, to give to the accused person. But there can be no direct contact between members of the public and the accused at the courthouse. And the guards do not take items from the public for inmates. So the only solution left is to make defence lawyers the couriers who take the clothes from the family members and take them to the guards, who then pass them on to the inmates.

Now, it’s alleged that the change of clothes which Ms. Liscio likely received from someone and likely passed to the court guards contained narcotics. It’s not hard to imagine that drugs could have been hidden, by a third party, in the clothes in a manner that could not be detected by a lawyer.

This is possibility required further investigation by the police. But it appears that they did not do that.

Instead, they immediately arrested Ms. Liscio.

But even if Ms. Liscio should have been arrested, the arrest should not have been conducted in the manner exercised by the police.

Let me clarify some points about the decision to arrest:

Arrests don’t need to be done a) immediately, b) with the use of handcuffs, or c) publicly:

First, the police can and often do exercise discretion in deciding when to act. They can conduct further investigation to determine, for example, if Ms. Liscio had any knowledge of the drugs allegedly being found in the clothes. Let’s say Ms. Liscio passes some items for an inmate to a court officer. It’s entirely possible that that officer will then pass the items to another court officer. But that first officer would never be charged for trafficking. What distinguishes that first officer from Ms. Liscio? Nothing other than the fact that Liscio is a defence lawyer.

Based on the facts, and the real possibility that Ms. Liscio was unaware of the presence of narcotics, her case certainly warranted patience and further investigation.

Second, the police don’t have to actually handcuff people to arrest them. Unlike what we see on T.V., an arrest can be and often is affected without handcuffs. In fact, the words, “You are under arrest” usually suffice. Officers are supposed to use less intrusive options whenever it is safe to do so. Ms. Liscio was certainly not posing a danger to anyone. She was not running away. This was a clear example of a case where handcuffs should not have been used.

Third, even when a person must be arrested, the police do not need to make a public spectacle of an arrest.

Officers can wait until the lawyers’ court matters are completed, then tell her that they need to speak to her. They can even tell her that they intend to charge her. They can tell her, as they do in many other cases and almost always when they intend to arrest other police officers, “Come to the station. Bring your toothbrush, we’re going to hold you. Bring your lawyer.”

What circumstances, then, would justify officers barging in and arresting someone at their workplace, or in such a public, demeaning manner?

If the officers have reasonable grounds to believe that the person in question is about to commit another offence, then they can immediately arrest him or her. If they believe that the person will get rid of evidence (for example, delete documents on a computer, or throw a gun into a river), then they are justified in arresting that person immediately. But in most cases, where the police have their evidence, and where there is no reason to believe that there will be a perpetuation of the offence, the police can ask the person to attend the station, or to come and talk to them.

That’s what police officers often do. It’s certainly the courtesy they extend to other police officers who are accused of crimes.

And that’s what they should have done here.

This would not be special treatment for a defence lawyers. It would be a professional way of handling the situation. It would involve a less onerous and less intrusive way of charging someone: something that officers are required to do, when praticable.

Compare Ms. Liscio’s case to those of police officers, also players in the criminal justice system, who have been charged with much more serious offences. How were they dealt with by other officers?

Officers Arresting Officers

Remember Sargeant John Schertzer, Detectives Steve Correia, Joseph Miched, Ray Pollard and Richard Benoit? Among them, they and other officers faced several serious charges, including extortion, obstruction of justice, theft, perjury, assault causing bodily harm, and falsification of notes. At the time when they were charged, these officers’ unlawful and criminal behaviour had led to 150 cases being stayed.

Yet these officers were not arrested in public, in front of their families, or made a spectacle of in any way. In fact, they were treated with utmost respect, considering the egregious charges which they faced. They were permitted to turn themselves in, attend the police station with their lawyers AND union representatives. They walked into the station, not through the public front doors, but through the back, hidden from view.

Even more astounding: Remember Officer James Forcillo, accused of second degree murder for the shooting of Sammy Yatim? He was charged with one of the most serious offences in the Criminal Code, one that carries the maximum sentence available to the state, that of life imprisonment. How was he charged? He was also invited to surrender to the Special Investigations Unit. He turned himself in, was charged, held for bail and released, all in under 24 hours. No public shaming by the police (this is not to take away from the humiliation or shaming he experienced otherwise.)

But defence lawyers seem to be arrested in or just outside of courthouses, in the middle of cross-examinations, or when about to start a case.

In this case, the police should have considered other explanations for the presence of drugs. They should have questioned Ms. Liscio. They should have given her the option of turning in herself. They should have considered that, as a defence lawyer, and like Crown Attorneys and police officers, Ms. Liscio has a duty for upholding the integrity of the criminal justice system. Indeed, she is reputed to be a highly ethical person.

All members of the public should be treated with respect when investigated or apprehended by the police. Whether it is a defence lawyer, a Crown Attorney, a police officer, or a regular member of the public, they should be treated with consideration, in a manner proportionate to the alleged crime, and with a deep appreciation for the possibility that the suspect may be innocent.

But whereas officers treat one another with decency, some of them appear to reserve this kind of degrading and humiliating treatment for defence lawyers.

Addendum: On Wednesday, February 18, Peel Regional Police published a third news release. In this release, police issued a retraction of some of their previous statements, and made an apology to the community, to the media, and to Ms. Liscio.

Here is an excerpt from that news release:

“On Friday, February 13, 2015, Peel Regional Police issued a press release in an attempt to clarify what were believed to be inaccuracies that had been reported both via social and traditional media. At the time of the release Peel Regional Police vehemently believed that what was contained in that release (Friday) was factually accurate. Peel Regional Police would like to correct the following details published in that release:

Upon arrest Ms. Liscio was indeed handcuffed in her court attire and escorted to a discreet location within the Court Bureau.
Following her arrest, Ms. Liscio was escorted by both uniformed and plainclothes officers to a marked cruiser.

It has subsequently been determined that the information that was originally relied upon was in fact incorrect. Peel Regional Police sincerely regrets publishing the misinformation and the impact that it has had on members of the community, members of the media and Ms. Liscio.”

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Looking forward to returning…

Hello readers,

I have been away for too long.  Rest assured, though, that during the campaign, I did address issues of social and criminal justice where appropriate.  In fact, I was the only one to do so publicly.

The campaign ended months ago…then there was the wrap-up and figuring out what is the next best step.  Do I return to criminal law practice (which I left when my kids were born, in 2005?)  Do I return to teaching?  Do I start something else?  While exploring those options, I’ve tried to stay active in a couple of other areas.  I did write, but not on criminal justice issues.  One article was about municipal politics- development, specifically.  The other was about my experience of being mistaken as a Muslim candidate during the election.  Here are the links, in case you are interested: Being Mistaken for a Muslim Candidate and    Building the Toronto that We Want 

Now, as I work on a couple of other projects, I intend to return to my criminal justice advocacy through writing as well.  With a new study about how easy it is to get people to give false confessions (and to insist that a false memory is true), I plan to write about the aggressive technique police use to get confessions from suspects.

Looking forward to engaging with you again,


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Running for Office, Taking a Short Break

Dear readers,
I am running for Toronto City Council.  Through government, I want to advocate for respectful policing, responsible development, good governance and vibrant, inclusive communities.  I want to work for my community and the City of Toronto, where I live, to make this city even better.
So I am sad to inform you that I have to take a little break from this blog.  I am thrilled, however, at the prospect of public service.
In the meantime, I will provide you with the link to my Huffington Post articles- a few of them were not posted on my blog:

To check out my campaign web-site, go to http://dyanooshyoussefi.ca/

Wish me good luck!


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The Officer Who Shot Sammy Yatim Got Bail. Does This Mean Anything?

James Forcillo, the officer who shot Sammy Yatim, the teenager who was alone on a streetcar while holding a knife, was charged with murder.  He was taken into custody and released on bail on the same day.  Would other offenders be treated this way?  Read my August, 2013, Huffington Post article on this issue here: James Forcillo’s Bail Proves a Double Standard.

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Will We Ever Learn the Whole Truth About Sammy Yatim?

To read my blog for the Huffington Post on, “Will We Ever Learn the Whole Truth About Sammy Yatim?” click here.

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When Videos of Police Abuse of Power Are Not Enough, Citizens Must Act

It has sadly become a familiar chain of events:

Officers charge civilian with assaulting a police officer.

Video (either surveillance, or taped by a civilian) surfaces: it shows the officers beating up the same person whom they have charged. That person is helpless and under police control; he or she is neither resisting nor assaulting the police.

The civilian, accused of assaulting the police, is dragged through the court system for months. Because of the video footage, the charges against the civilian are often withdrawn by the Crown Attorney. Occasionally, some of these officers are charged or disciplined. But the videos, the public outcries, the disciplinary measures or the criminal charges against the officers do not seem to serve as a deterrent to police officers prone to abusing their powers.  

And the events are repeated.

In the last two weeks in Canada, two such videos have surfaced. One involved a Toronto man, the other an Innu man in Unamen Shipu, in eastern Quebec.  

Both of these videos come on the heels of the 10-year anniversary of the Said Jama Jama case, one of the first Canadian cases that I can recall where the police were surreptitiously recorded by a civilian holding a small camera. Jama Jama, a young Toronto man, was charged with assaulting a police officer and causing a disturbance. The officer said that Jama Jama had assaulted him, and that Jama’s own injuries were caused from his involvement in an earlier fight. Jama denied these allegations, and claimed that the officer had punched him in the face. The tourist who had video-taped the interactions provided the tape to the defence. And that video-tape clearly showed an officer punching Jama Jama in the face, while the young man was standing, arms down, not resisting and not fighting the police. Significantly, but not unusually, the police had denied punching the young man until the video surfaced.

The video led to the withdrawal of charges against Jama Jama. The lying officer was charged, and later convicted of assaulting him.  

Since the Jama Jama case, there have been numerous incidents were the police have been caught on video in their lies and in their abuse of civilians. Some of the more publicized cases include: the beating of Stacey Bond in a police station by the Ottawa police; the multitude of recorded assaults and abuses of power by the Toronto police during the G20 in 2010; the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski, a confused, helpless, frightened man in the Vancouver airport; the severe beating of an Edmonton man who was under police control; the unjustified pepper spraying of protestors by a Montreal police officer; and a Vancouver officer who kicked a high, helpless, half-dressed man several times.

These cases prove two realities: First, that the proliferation of cellphone cameras is increasingly catching those meant to serve and protect us in acts of violence and brutality against us. Second, catching the police red-handed has not stopped police abuse of power.

Videos, law suits, inquests, inquiries and public outcries — none of these seem to have shaken the intractable police conviction that some civilians deserve to be beaten by the police, and that the police can act with impunity.  

The blue code of silence remains impermeable. It seems that officers remain reluctant to report abuses of power by their colleagues, fearing retaliation or repercussions.

Police departments and chiefs appear to treat the videos as just another public relations challenge.

But the immeasurable negative impact of the police conduct persists: The public’s faith and trust in the police is undermined, the injured citizen suffers mental, emotional, and physical harm, and his or her family bear the long-term negative consequences. And the public foots much of the bill for the lengthy and costly judicial process, including the cost of the officer’s defence.   

So what should citizens and ethically conscious police officers do? Simply shrug and accept that with power, comes abuse of power? Should we resign ourselves to the bleak conclusion that a certain percentage of the police force will always act criminally, themselves, and that the rest will remain silent?


Police culture CAN change. It is not intractable. But it will only change through the political power of engaged citizens.

We must be vigilant in ensuring that our voices, concerns and solutions are both heard and implemented — by police services boards, police chiefs, and politicians. We must demand that our political representatives take leadership and have the courage to address the problem of police abuse of power.

It is paramount that police education includes extensive training and focus on the de-escalation of conflict through peaceful, rather than violent means. Policing students must learn and internalize non-aggressive conflict resolution skills. Officers must be reminded over and over that their position of power, and their involvement in risky situations, does not grant them permission to abuse civilians, regardless of what such civilians are alleged to have committed. Police education and training and police leaders must repeatedly underscore the notion that the police are there to rationally and neutrally investigate and make arrests when legally justified, not to pass judgment or exact justice.  

Respect for all human beings must be a prerequisite to becoming an officer, just as much as physical fitness and the ability to make quick decisions are requirements.

In addition, police officers must be genuinely encouraged, supported and permitted to report other officers who abuse their power.     

Officers must have regular training and support in dealing with stress, so that the pressures of their jobs and their personal lives do not translate into aggression against those who question their authority.

The proliferation of these videos can lead to positive developments in the way we police. But that positive change will only come if citizens continue to demand that our police services and our politicians take ownership of the problem and show leadership in its resolution.

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The Harper Government: Making Our Streets and Communities Less Safe, Pounding the Vulnerable, and Snubbing the Supreme Court of Canada

How do you defy the highest court in the land?  

If you are the Conservative federal government, you replace a simple, straight-forward law with a gargantuan one that shouts, “In your face, Supreme Court!” In other words, you turn the court’s decision on its head.

That’s what Harper’s government did last Thursday when it introduced Bill C-65. The Bill is their response to the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2011 decision which declared that the Minister of Health must grant Insite, Vancouver’s supervised drug injection facility, an exemption under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, so that it can continue to provide health services.

Drug injection facilities are more than a place where drug addicts go to use drugs safely. The facilities promote public health by minimizing the harms associated with street-level, illicit drug use. They reduce incidences of drug overdose, the transmission of diseases through needle sharing, and the rate of serious infection. They increase public safety by reducing crime associated with drug use. The clinics, staffed by doctors, nurses, and therapists trained in dealing with addictions, also provide counselling, referral services, and immediate help to those who are ready to curb their addictions. In turn, all these benefits result in reduced societal costs associated with drug use.

But the Federal government did not like the Supreme Court’s telling it that it should continue to grant Insite the exemption it had since 2003.    

To get around the judgement, the government devised Bill C-65.

Under current legislation, the Minister may exempt any person from the application of the CDSA if, in the opinion of the Minister, the exemption is necessary for a medical or scientific purpose or is otherwise in the public interest. Plain and simple. The entire section uses up 70 words.  

But under Bill C-65, those 70 words are replaced with 2,627 words (not counting the preamble), most of which set up one colossal obstacle after another for any group that hopes to set up a safe injection site.

Under the Bill, applicants will be required to submit reports and letters from the provincial Minister of Health, Minister of Public Safety, the local municipality, the local police, and health professionals, as well as research, statistics, information on trends and other data, and also, significantly, reports on consultations held with a “broad range of community groups from the municipality,” including a summary of the opinions expressed, copies of all written submissions, and submissions on what applicants intend to do about those community concerns. All in all, there are 26 (or more, depending on how you count it) complex, costly, and onerous conditions that must be fulfilled before the Minister will even consider whether or not to grant an exemption.

One might argue, “What is wrong with having stringent requirements for setting up places where, after all, illicit drugs are going to be consumed?” Doesn’t that ensure that these clinics are safer?

On the face of it, the requirements do not appear unreasonable. But the Harper government is well aware of the societal benefits of these facilities. And so, it should advocate for their increased use, where justified. Instead, the government is erecting insurmountable obstacles in the way of anyone who may want to build a safe-injection site.

The truth is that Bill C-65 is not intended to ensure improved safety in the creation of safe-injection clinics. The real intention behind the Bill is to stop any such attempts dead in its tracks.

On the same day the government introduced the Bill, it also started a political public campaign to oppose the building of safe injection clinics anywhere.  

Jenny Byrne, the Conservative party’s main tactician, posted a fear-mongering, misleading message on the Conservative party’s web-site. The posting, entitled, “Keep heroin out of our backyards,” both misinforms and misleads the public, and capitalizes on fears based on insufficient information. It suggests to readers that such clinics are about to be set up in every neighbourhood in the country (which is simply untrue), and aims to collect the names of those opposed to such facilities, to allow for the most efficient and effective opposition, should there be a proposal for a safe-injection facility in any municipality. The message from the posting is clear: “We are totally against such clinics, and we’ve introduced the bill to make it harder for similar facilities to be set up elsewhere in the country.”

It’s a sad but unsurprising position and tactic by the Conservative government.

Instead of leading, the Conservative government puts up roadblocks.

Instead of increasing public safety and reducing harm, the Harper government perpetuates the conditions that lead to greater harm and risk to public safety.

Instead of implementing preventative measures that will reduce public spending in the long-run, the Conservative government adopts punitive, harmful policies that will cost us more.  

Instead of educating and informing the public about the truth behind addictions, harm reduction, and the benefits of such facilities, the Conservatives engage in a campaign of misinformation and fear-mongering built on simplistic one-liners.

They introduce a Bill that may make it nearly impossible to build another safe-injection site.   

The government surely knows that the law may not stand Charter scrutiny. But the Conservatives don’t care about that. They will push ahead with the Bill because it makes it sound like they care about (some) Canadians.  

But in doing so, the Harper government harms not only those with addictions, but all Canadians.  

In the process, and as an added bonus, the Conservative government also flips its finger at the highest court in the land.

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