by Barry Weisleder / November 2006
In July of 2000, Stefan Pilipa, Gaetan Heroux, and John Clarke of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) were arrested as alleged ‘leaders’ of a ‘riot’ one month earlier at the Ontario Legislature in Toronto. Over 1500 people had come to Queen’s Park to demand that a delegation of homeless people be allowed to address the legislature.
When police moved to disperse the crowd, using mounted units and riot cops, a confrontation ensued. The Crown Attorney’s Office alleged it was a pre-planned riot. The jury trial that was employed to try and to convict the three, under reactionary and antiquated sections of the Criminal Code, fell apart when the jury became deadlocked and could not reach a verdict.
During their arrests, the three members of OCAP were subjected to unjustified strip searches and were not brought before a justice of the peace for a bail hearing within a time deemed reasonable. The judge at their jury trial found that their constitutional rights had been violated. His decision continues to be used by defence lawyers throughout Canada as an important precedent.
After the trial was over and the charges were no more, the three defendants brought an action against the police in Small Claims Court. Last week, Clarke (who was subjected to three improper body searches) was awarded $10,000, and Pilipa and Heroux $5000 each.
This is an important result, which opens the door for many victims of police abuse and violence to seek civil damages and avoid dealing with the useless police complaints mechanism. The fact that the abuses that gave rise to the lawsuit occurred in the context of an attempt to silence political opposition, the homeless, and victims of poverty makes this victory especially sweet and important.