Crown warned VicPD about need to disclose misconduct allegations

Federal prosecutors were concerned about the need to disclose allegations of misconduct against a former Victoria police officer years before the department’s failure to share the information with defense and Crown lawyers doomed a $30-million drug case.

CBC News has obtained a copy of a spreadsheet prepared in June 2020 of more than 100 active and past cases listing Const. Robb Ferris as a witness officer as well as emails from prosecutors worried his involvement might put some files in jeopardy.

As CBC first reported in February, those fears came to pass earlier this year when charges in a major drug probe — known as Project Juliet — collapsed after a BC Supreme Court judge found investigators misled defense and Crown lawyers about Ferris’s role in the case.

The documents — obtained through a Freedom of Information request — indicate the Public Prosecution Service of Canada (PPSC) asked about the possible impact of misconduct allegations against Ferris just days after he was arrested by the RCMP’s anti-corruption unit on June 18, 2020.

In an email sent to senior staff at both the Victoria Police Department (VicPD) and the RCMP on June 23, 2020, senior federal Crown counsel Ernie Froess noted that Ferris’s arrest would likely be subject to the rules governing disclosure of police misconduct.

“The PPSC’s deputy director George Dolhai has asked me to inquire what steps are being taken by the RCMP and VicPD to identify all past and current cases that are potentially jeopardized,” Froess wrote.

“For now we would like a complete list of all active files currently before the courts involving (Const.) Ferris in any capacity.”

To ‘scapegoat’?

Ferris resigned from VicPD after more than a decade with the force, before he could be fired when an Office of the Police Complaints Commissioner (OPCC) investigation substantiated 19 acts of misconduct.

His alleged wrongdoing included providing details of an ongoing investigation to his wife and mother and providing information related to police databases, ongoing investigations and covert operation techniques to a civilian. He was never criminally charged.

Former Victoria Police officer Robb Ferris resigned from the department after being accused of misconduct. He says he is now being used as a scapegoat to avoid scrutiny of decisions he had nothing to do with.

Former Victoria Police officer Robb Ferris resigned from the department after being accused of misconduct. He says he is now being used as a scapegoat to avoid scrutiny of decisions he had nothing to do with. (Submitted by Robb Ferris)

According to court documents, Ferris was part of the first iteration of the investigation into a fentanyl trafficking ring that later became Project Juliet. The probe restarted after his arrest, but Justice Catherine Murray said her colleagues tried to “obscure” his role.

After the CBC broke the news that prosecutors had stayed charges against all three accused in the case, VicPD Chief Del Manak defended his officers, laying blame at the feet of Ferris — who in turn told CBC he feared he was being used as a “scapegoat “

The documents obtained by CBC News indicate that Victoria police officers were tasked in June 2020 with scouring JUSTIN — the justice system’s integrated online management system — for all files before the courts as well as all internal files not yet forwarded to the Crown.

One officer was also given the job of reviewing files which were not listed on JUSTIN.

Stays of proceedings

The documents highlighted the difficulty of measuring the impact the episode had on the outcome of cases in which Ferris played a role as either an investigator or confidential informant handler.

There is nothing to suggest Ferris did anything wrong in relation to any of the investigations, but the law requires that prosecutors disclose to defense acts of serious misconduct by police officers who may be called as witnesses or who were otherwise involved in a case.

This gun was seized as part of a Victoria Police ‘Strike Force’ investigation detailed in a news release. Charges against the accused were later stayed.

This gun was seized as part of a Victoria Police ‘Strike Force’ investigation detailed in a news release. Charges against the accused were later stayed. (Victoria Police Department)

The PPSC’s website says the information must be “‘related to the investigation against the accused’ or could ‘reasonably impact’ on the case against the accused.”

Of the more than 100 cases listed on the spreadsheet prepared by the VicPD for prosecutors, 49 had already resulted in convictions and another 15 ended in stays or acquittals. Names of accused are redacted.

Stayed charges are often removed from BC’s online court services website, so CBC followed up in person with Victoria court registry staff to determine the outcome of the bulk of the remaining files.

At least 18 of those cases ended in stays of proceedings, including two cases that were widely reported following VicPD news releases — both involving men charged with multiple counts including weapons and drug-trafficking charges.

The list also includes the case of an accused drug trafficker who is currently appealing his conviction on grounds related to Ferris’s role as a witness.

‘We are disappointed’

In a statement, a spokesperson for PPSC said the department was “unable to comment on the specific reasons for a decision to proceed with, or direct a stay in, any particular prosecution.”

The department pointed instead to the service’s guidebook which says “prosecution should not be undertaken unless there is a reasonable prospect of conviction and the prosecution would best serve the public interest.”

Victoria Police released this image of cash seized during an investigation that resulted in drug trafficking and weapons charges. The charges were later stayed.

Victoria Police released this image of cash seized during an investigation that resulted in drug trafficking and weapons charges. The charges were later stayed. (Victoria Police Department)

The lack of disclosure about Ferris’s role in Project Juliet has resulted in an OPCC investigation into the Victoria police officer who led the investigation.

The OPCC said earlier this year that the probe will also take into account Justice Murray’s findings, which details the role yet another police officer played in “concealing” search warrants obtained during the first part of the investigation.

“We are disappointed in the impact that having a corrupt police officer has had on our department, on our staff, and on the work we do,” a VicPD spokesperson said in a statement to CBC.

“Any stay of proceedings is disappointing, as officers and staff work hard to build charge recommendations to Crown Counsel. However, a stay of proceedings is not unusual in the justice process.”

Ferris did not provide a comment on the freedom of information documents. In a previous statement, he told the CBC: “The downfall of Project Juliet was a result of the members and the leadership/management of Strike Force at the time.”