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Richard Oland search warrants set to be made public

08/16/2012 08:16 EDT | Updated 10/16/2012 05:12 EDT
Some of the search warrants related to the year-old Richard Oland homicide investigation are expected to be released Thursday.

CBC News and the Telegraph-Journal have been seeking to have the documents made public since December. Warrants are normally public and should only be sealed in "extraordinary" cases, says David Coles, a Halifax-based lawyer who is representing the media outlets.

“We have an open, transparent justice system so that citizens can have faith that the system is working properly,” he said.

Normally, when a police officer applies to the court for a search warrant, that information is confidential so a suspect, or the subject of the search warrant, isn’t tipped off and skips town or hides whatever evidence police are looking for, said Coles.

But once police execute a search warrant and if something is in fact seized, the courts have ruled that information should be made public, he said.

“By making this process open at that point … it serves to keep both the courts and the police under public scrutiny … It prevents the abuse of, for example, search warrants being obtained and people being hassled and goods being taken improperly,” Coles explained.

“And, of course, you can’t make that evaluation to say the system is working well, or not working, if it’s all behind closed doors.”

Oland, a prominent businessman, was found dead in his Saint John office on July 7, 2011.

Police have executed at least nine search warrants in the case, including one at the home of Oland’s son, Dennis Oland, and one on a sailboat co-owned by Dennis’ wife.

The Crown had been fighting to keep all of the search warrants and related documents sealed, saying they contained “hallmark” evidence that only the person or persons responsible for Oland’s death would know.

But then, in a surprise move on July 31, prosecutors withdrew the application to extend the sealing order and sought instead to keep only some information secret.

Provincial court Chief Justice R. Leslie Jackson is expected to release the remaining information on Thursday.

'It’s the public’s right to information'

Coles says there are some cases where some so-called hallmark evidence can be withheld to prevent false confessions.

But it is an “extraordinary exception” that a year later, the Crown and police are still seeking to keep large parts of the file under wraps, Coles said.

“And the real question is why?”

Coles is expected to return to court on Friday to argue to have additional details from the search warrants released.

“It really should be made clear that in bringing this application, neither the CBC nor the Telegraph-Journal is trying to in any way impede this investigation or jeopardize this investigation,” he stressed.

“The material that we’re looking for is material that there is no justification to keep confidential. It is so that the process works as it’s supposed to, as opposed to shielding from public scrutiny that what ought to be known.”

The media, in bringing forward such applications, are acting as surrogates for the public, said Coles.

“It’s the public’s right to information,” he said.

Without intervention by the media, such information might remain secret until the end of a trial, said Coles.

“That process, first of all, may take years and the public’s understanding of what’s going on in reference to a horrendous crime is then delayed beyond reason. That’s problem No. 1,” he said.

“Problem No. 2, is … what if these search warrants are executed, evidence is gotten and then at some stage, the Crown elects not to proceed and doesn’t charge? Do you then never know what evidence they had? How can you then comment on whether it was righteous to think that they had a case or not had a case?

“People may never know. And the search warrants, maybe they weren’t righteous, maybe innocent people, you know, had their houses searched and their lives disrupted for improper reasons.”

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