Some of the 11

OPINION: Chilliwack grow-op case delay is a black eye for justice

It's been 2,743 days since RCMP raided Chilliwack's largest ever marijuana grow-op and the accused doesn't have a lawyer

Lloyd McConnell was in BC Supreme Court in Chilliwack Tuesday morning to explain why, yet again, he wasn’t ready for his pre-trial conference.

McConnell’s case has gone on so long that when he was first arrested, RCMP were frequently busting marijuana grow-ops. His was declared the largest ever in Chilliwack.

By my count it’s been 2,743 days since Mounties searched McConnell’s Nixon Road property on Sept. 9, 2009. In the current climate of medical cannabis ubiquity and imminent legalization, it’s hard to remember the last major grow-op bust in the city.

But that’s now. This was then. When cops raided the remote property at the end of Nixon Road, they found a sophisticated BC Hydro bypass and a Quonset hut underneath which was an underground bunker and 11,520 marijuana plants.

The operation was said to be producing an estimated $3 million worth of drugs a year, and police estimate the grow-op probably consumed more than $400,000 of stolen hydro.

McConnell is charged with marijuana production and possession, as well as hydro theft.

Court delays across Canada have made headlines of late, and the issue is putting pressure on Crown offices, judges, and all the way up to federal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould as 800 accused criminals have had cases against them stayed in the wake of last July’s R. vs. Jordan ruling, which addressed excessive delays.

So what is the cause of the delay to this seven-and-a-half-year-old case?

“It is under review,” McConnell told the court via phone Tuesday of his application to the Legal Services Society to help pay for a lawyer.

Justice Miriam Maisonville, who also attended via phone, asked McConnell what happened after the last time they were in court on Jan. 9 of this year for what was supposed to be a pre-trial conference. At that time he said he should have a decision from legal aid in a “couple of days.”

“There was still no response,” he said in court Tuesday. “The provincial supervisor is extremely busy. . . . I called again and was told ‘no, we’ll mail out a decision.’”

With a trial scheduled for June in this case, Crown counsel Michael LeDressay told McConnell that because his legal aid application was delayed, the chances of it being approved, him finding a lawyer who can get up to speed on the complicated case, “is so distant that we should consider an adjournment.”

Yet another adjournment. LeDressay then invoked the Jordan guidelines, which puts a presumptive ceiling of 30 months on criminal cases in superior courts, minus delays by defence.

In this case, presumably, McConnell will have to waive any claim to delays since they are all of his own making, but LeDressay still has to tread carefully.

The case has had some interesting turns. McConnell, who for some reason lost his lawyer some six months ago, was actually in front of Chilliwack city council seven years ago to fight a notice being put on title due to health and safety issues on his property. At that time his lawyer Nathan Muirhead said McConnell was the owner of the property but was “an innocent victim” regarding the massive grow-op.

(Incidentally, Mayor Sharon Gaetz and council were unsympathetic and voted unanimously to put the notice on title.)

But then his defence strategy took a 180-degree turn under lawyer Patrick McGowan who argued in November 2014 that McConnell was so connected to the property and the marijuana that the searches in 2009 were violations of his Charter rights.

“He is the primary person connected to the property,” McGowan said. “Mr. McConnell is very much tied to the property, the Quonset hut specifically, and the grow-op very specifically.”

In the end, in February 2015, Maisonville rejected eight of the 12 alleged Charter violations, but she did agree that city staff presence was a violation, and seizure of some items connected to the grow-op was a violation.

Delays are nothing new in the court system and are often blamed on the Crown and judges. Many delays, however, are caused by defence lawyers and clients who are sometimes stuck between defence lawyers. And, assuming McConnell is telling the whole truth about legal aid in this case, we see yet other delays are caused elsewhere.

The hard-to-overcome problem in all of this is that delays caused by a complicated system only serve to further cynicism in the public eye.

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