Toronto resident Byron Sonne was a lucky guy. He was raised in a loving, supportive family. He married the girl of his dreams and they lived in a nice house in a good neighbourhood, and lived happily ever after… well, almost.
Byron’s active mind led into the world of computers, and he had his own business as a security consultant. Byron is what they used to call a “renaissance man” by virtue of his agile mind and wide variety of interests. Finances weren’t an issue, and so he was able to indulge in his many hobbies, from gardening to rocketry.
He was an active member of the Toronto HackLab community. Although the Hollywood media has perpetuated a stereotype of “hackers” as computer criminals, many technical people disagree, and in the last decade a new kind of community centre called a “hackerspace” has been evolving as a place where clever folks with similar inclinations can come together in a co-operative community, with an interest in both playing with technology and solving problems with it.
Our story begins in 2010 with the controversy over the billion dollar price tag for G20 security that resulted from the decision to locate the G20 Summit in downtown Toronto. That’s an awful lot of tax money to be spending on something that the public isn’t even allowed to attend.
Byron’s interest was both as a resident and an information security professional, and his background well suited him to assess the security measures being deployed for the impending G20. And so he began documenting it. He took photographs of the dramatically increased police presence and posted them on Flickr. Same with the fences that were going up all over downtown, blocking off public spaces from local residents. Citizens.
As a computer security professional, Byron knew only too well how easy it is to use technology to turn a free society into a surveillance society. He followed a Toronto Star map showing where the vast number of new security cameras had been placed and began photographed them too. Byron expressed concern that these cameras would not go away after the G20 summit was over.
[And surprise, surprise, the Canadian Government sold most of them to the City of Toronto at fire sale prices.]
…the right to be free from arbitrary detention/search and seizure…
When Byron was first stopped by the police for taking pictures, he refused to identify himself. Canadians in control of a motor vehicle can be compelled to produce a driver’s licence, but a law abiding citizen on foot does not have to provide identification to police. These rights are supposed to be guaranteed Canadians under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
And we know Byron knew this from his Twitter feed, where he counselled Canadians not to jay walk and give police legal cause to compel identification.
Police considered the fact he knew his rights to be suspicious.
When the police threatened to charge Byron with jaywalking, even though he had not been, he identified himself to them. He was then allowed to leave, but of course, that was when they began searching for him online and began to build a case against him.
Byron shared links to resources like A legal guide for activists and What to do if the police come knockin’ to help protesters know their rights. The fact that Byron was aware of his rights, and was willing to assert them seems to be what the police thought was suspicious.
…the right not to be arbitrarily detained or imprisoned…
Byron Sonne was denied bail … twice.
Bail is only supposed to be denied for two reasons: if the person charged is
- a danger to the community,
- or a flight risk.
Even if Byron *had* been a danger, once the G20 was over, he would no longer have been.
Byron was a 38 year old man with
- no criminal record,
- professional certifications in the security field,
- with ties to the community,
- and his own home and,
- his own business.
Murderers and other violent offenders are routinely released on bail.
Byron’s first two bail hearings were before a Justice of the Peace. In Canada, JPs don’t even have to have any legal training; and often common sense is enough. But in many situations a Justice of the Peace relies on direction from the Crown Attorney’s office, and so can serve as kind of a government “rubber stamp” in the initial stages of legal proceedings.
Byron was incarcerated for 330 days.
Clearly, this is not a good state of affairs. If nothing else, Byron Sonne’s case highlights the fact that a Justice of The Peace should not be deciding whether to a citizen bail. There is evidence that the use of remand, which is imprisonment before actually being convicted of anything ~ is now on the rise, accounting for nearly 60% of incarcerations.
Used in this manner, the Canadian Justice system can be used to trample the civil rights we are supposed to enjoy and inflict a prison sentence on a citizen not been judged guilty. Not only did Byron lose his liberty, this punitive term of incarceration directly resulted in the loss of Byron’s home, business, and marriage. What possible justification is there for this?
Although Byron has been exonerated, and is now proved not guilty in the eyes of the law, he has served almost a year of detention,
and another 362 days of onerous Bail conditions
Byron’s bail terms effectively placed him under house arrest, with sweeping limits to his liberty, including an 11:00 curfew, severely limited access to computers (which curtails any possibility of gainful employment), and allowing warrantless police searches of his parents home at any time.
…freedom of association…
Part of the strict bail conditions was a prohibition against association with other G20 accused, including members of the TCMN (Toronto Community Mobilization Network). This was a coalition of various Toronto civil rights groups who were concerned about potential negative effects of the G20 in Toronto. I myself published the TCMNs cautionary posters out of concern for the impending G20. And after mass arrests numbering over a thousand, I think my concern – and TCMNs was justified.
As near as I could tell from the trial, Byron may have accessed their website and joined their digital mailing list, but I don’t believe that he actually knew any of them at that time. The Crown sought to imply the TCMN was a terrorist organization [absent any proof] and tar Byron with the same brush. Similarly there was an attempt to implicate Byron with innuendo by characterizing the use of p2p file sharing as nefarious.
In many ways the whole thing was a trial of innuendo.
abuse of power
The legal system is charged with safeguarding citizens. There are supposed to be checks and balances that protect citizens from abuses.
Most of Byron’s original charges were dropped. One of them was a weapons charge. As I understand it, the weapon was a potato cannon. Yes, you read it right, a spud gun. Yes, you can do damage with one of these. As you can with a great many things that are legal to own and use. But since potato guns are legal to buy or build yourself, this charge was ludicrous.
The charges that made me nervous involved “Intimidation of a justice system participant.” At that time I hadn’t met Byron, so I thought, hmmm, maybe he yelled threats at them when he was arrested or something. But no, it wasn’t anything like that. These charges were laid because Byron photographed police officers, and then posted them on the Internet.
It’s ironic that the government wants to photograph us with security cameras, but objects to citizens photographing our public servants.
This is ridiculous. When I was on an eighth grade trip to the Science Center, I asked an RCMP officer to pose for me, and he did. He wasn’t intimidated at all; and in fact, he even smiled a little.
In the normal course of things, police officers in Canada are armed with guns and the right to detain citizens. Guns are intimidating, but a camera? The only time photographing a police officer could be construed as intimidation would be when police officers are doing something that they should not be doing. This charge is beyond ridiculous.
Nothing Byron did was illegal. He had chemicals in his house that could be used to make explosives. So do you. Most of us have chemicals in our kitchens and bathrooms that could be used to make explosives. I listened to testimony the Crown’s expert witness, an army officer who is tasked with knowing what common household ingredients could be used as explosives.
It was odd to hear the Crown Attorney try to make the case that Byron’s careful handling of the chemicals in his home were somehow nefarious. Granted, Byron did have other chemicals that could be combined to make explosives. But the expert testimony was that nothing he had was illegal. In larger quantities some of the chemicals would fall under restrictions, but Byron was very careful to stay within the law, because breaking the law would jeopardize his security certifications and job prospects.
Toronto Police spokesman Mark Pugash made no apologies for Sonne’s arrest, saying it would be “a dangerous assumption” to think that a case was without merit simply because it was acquitted.
“There was sufficient evidence to arrest, there was sufficient evidence to charge,” he said. “… the Crown took the case forward.”
“Byron Sonne walks free, but the G20 forever changed his life” ~ Brendan Kennedy Toronto Star
What Mr. Pugash characterizes as “evidence” may have been cause for investigation, but if there was sufficient evidence to charge Byron, why didn’t it come out in the trial? The possibility always existed that Byron might have been convicted on politics, but there was no evidence of wrongdoing.
So although Byron should never have been arrested, his arrest is understandable in the pre-G20 hysteria. Especially as the police lacked the resources to identify or understand some of the things they found in Byron’s home, like the “detonator” that wasn’t.
But there is simply no mitigation for the arrest of Byron’s wife, since there was never evidence against her. Questioning her would have been reasonable, but an arrest and three days of detention appears both punitive and excessive. The Detective Bui videos indicate her incarceration may have been part of an effort to manipulate a confession from Byron.
This kind of citizen abuse at the hands of the police is what we expect in a repressive dictatorship, not in Canada. Canadians have civil rights . . . don’t we?
Now that there isn’t a publication ban . . .
It’s safe to talk about things I learned at Byron’s preliminary hearing.
CSIS has what they call the “Open Source” program, which doesn’t mean software which allows users to access the source code (the usual meaning) but rather this is a program to spy on Canadians online. The officer testifying about this program stressed that they only spy on citizens in the “public” parts of the internet, so while they may be reading your Facebook status, he claimed they don’t delve into our “private messages” without a warrant, although he gave the impression that they could if they wanted to.
Still, I find this warrantless invasion of the privacy of private citizens in a democracy more than a little bit creepy. When they pass C-30 they will be legally allowed to take the next step into our private communications, also without a warrant.
Something else bothered me even more, something said by one of the law enforcement witnesses. I’m not sure if he was from CSIS or had just worked with them to find information about Byron, but he testified that CSIS had been unable to crack the TrueCrypt encryption on one of Byron’s computers. Because of this, he testified, Byron would always be a person of interest to CSIS — even if Byron was acquitted.
I couldn’t write anything about that then, because of the publication ban, but that attitude makes a mockery of our justice system. After facing everything that law enforcement could throw at him, Byron has been cleared. The Crown spent nearly two years trying to prove Byron guilty, spending untold tax dollars trying to transform speculation into evidence, and failed.
I am happy that Byron is now free to rebuild his life. It was great to hear that his CISSP certification was restored in record time. And I’m happy that this is the last time I need to write about Byron, so that I can spend more time writing about fictional characters. I expect I won’t need to write about Byron again until it’s time to plug the book about this mess he plans to co-author with Denise Balkissoon.
It was the only reasonable legal outcome, but the idea that CSIS or the police might continue to harass Byron Sonne is of serious concern. Byron Sonne is no longer only presumed innocent, he is now legally innocent. And innocent Canadians should not have to worry that Big Brother is looking over their shoulder.
Chris Olah’s Trial Notes: Byron’s Trial, Verdict
You can read the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms here