B.C. men to return to court after sheriff shortage prompted charge dismissals

Judges in separate cases had slammed the government for not hiring enough sheriffs

Two Victoria men whose criminal charges were dropped last year because of a lack of available sheriffs have been ordered back to court.

Michael John Dubensky and Richard Anthony D’Allesandro were accused in separate cases on various drug trafficking and weapons offences, but Crown was allowed to protest the dismissal of charges in a single appeal because they involve the same issues and location.

According to court documents, D’Allesandro was scheduled for a half-day trial in 2017 on charges of possession of cocaine for the purpose of trafficking in an alleged incident three years earlier. But a sheriff was not available.

“Crown is ready to go. Defence is ready to go. The court is ready to go,” B.C. Supreme Court Justice Robert Johnston said at the time. “Mr. D’Allesandro is in custody in this building, but he is not able to attend because there are no sheriffs to bring him to court.

“That is completely unacceptable. I am not prepared to conduct this trial in Mr. D’Allesandro’s absence. He has a right to be here and he should be here.”

Johnston stayed the proceedings, essentially dropping the charges and blaming a lack of “provincial will” to provide proper resources.

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Dubenksy, meanwhile, was charged with possession of heroin for the purpose of trafficking, as well as possession of bear spray, in relation to a 2015 incident.

He was to remain in custody during his three-day trial in 2017. But court documents say no sheriffs were available to sit in the courtroom, nor stay with him while he is transported to and from the Vancouver Island Regional Correctional Centre.

“It is the responsibility of the state, that is the province, to adequately staff courthouses, and part of that responsibility of staffing includes making sure there are sheriffs available so that trials can run as they are meant to and must run,” B.c. Supreme Court Justice Jacqueline Dorgan said at the time.

“Sheriffs are pivotal to the operation of a trial and particularly so in regard to an in-custody trial in the criminal field.”

In his decision Tuesday, B.C. Appeal Court Justice David Frankel sided with Crown in its appeal.

“While the judges were right to be concerned — and, it would appear, frustrated — over the unavailability of sheriffs and the effect a lack of sufficient sheriffs can have on the Supreme Court’s ability to carry out its functions,” Frankel wrote, “how they chose to address that problem in dealing with the cases before them was both procedurally inappropriate and extreme.”

He and the other two appeal judges set aside the stays of proceedings for both men and remitted the matters for trial.

A lack of sheriffs has long caused delays in the B.C. justice system.

Such shortages let to six courtroom delays and eight closures between fall 2016 and spring 2017, according to the province. In March 2017, the under-staffing in provincial court in Victoria got so stark a Kamloops deputy sheriff was flown in to lend a hand.

The NDP government pledged $15 million in its February budget to hire more staff, while the federal government tabled a new bill last month aimed at reforming many problems of the justice system, including court delays.

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