Tweeting the location of a police RIDE check for drunk drivers could land someone in prison, says a Toronto criminal defence lawyer.
“You can go to jail,” says Paul Burstein of tweets about the locations of the police checks.
“In fact, it can be prosecuted by indictment and you can go to a penitentiary.”
Doing so could prompt a charge of attempted obstruction of justice, according to Burstein, who was reacting to recent concerns by Toronto police about the phenomenon of tweeting RIDE locations.
Basically, police and prosecutors would have to prove someone was in fact the person tweeting the RIDE check with the intention to warn drunk drivers, says Burstein. “Assuming they could link it to a person, yeah, I would say that established probable grounds for attempt to obstruct justice.”
That’s a potentially scary proposition considering that all someone did was type a few words into their smartphone’s Twitter application.
But it’s more than that, says Toronto police Sgt. Tim Burrows. According to Burrows, people may be helping drunk drivers avoid justice that could ultimately lead to them killing someone’s spouse, child or friend with their vehicle.
Burrows notes police are used to drivers flashing their lights to warn of speed traps. While they know there are applications for people to download that warn them of the traps and red-light cameras, tweeting RIDE checks really hits a nerve.
Burrows sent out a tweet of his own on Christmas Eve: “If you tweet a #RIDE location tonight, make sure you also apologize tomorrow to any families who lose a loved one to a drunk driver.”
Dozens of people retweeted the message, and many more wrote Burrows expressing support. “That touched a nerve with a lot of people, and I think the reason why I decided to take that one on is this isn’t just a matter of trying to get people to avoid a ticket or slow down in a speeding zone,” he says.
“This was people that were allowing or helping others continue a criminal offence or avoid criminal prosecution. I think there is no room for that.”
Burrows agrees that tweeting RIDE locations could prompt criminal charges. “On its face, yes, it certainly could be considered an attempt to obstruct justice,” he says.
“The reality is being a social media network, trying to prove the intent of what someone was doing and the actual identity of the person doing it [is difficult]. There are so many things that play into it. Going that route would be very arduous.”
Burrows notes police would likely save that option for the most extreme cases.
Asked why police don’t make an example out of someone to grab newspaper headlines, Burrows says it’s not a bad idea but doing so would take resources.
“You also have to balance that with what are the needs of the community and what are the resources available. Do you have a dedicated unit to enforce those types of crimes? Those are all challenges we face. Nowadays, we really have to take a hard look.”
That’s why, Burrows adds, police go onto social media web sites in order to address grey areas of the law and educate the public.
Police in Kingston, Ont., have also had their problems with people tweeting RIDE checks. Const. Steve Koopman has similar views to Burrows on the issue. The veteran police officer knows the amount of time it could take to pinpoint a name to a tweet.
Koopman says he’d first have to contact the Internet service provider for the name and Internet protocol address. In the meantime, he’d have to get a warrant.
Then, armed with the name and address of the accused, he’d have to draft another warrant to enter the person’s home to seize the computer or smartphone. Once he’s done that, police would have to search the data on the electronics.
All of that is just to see if police can lay charges.
“Even if we’ve done that, now he’ll say, ‘I lent my phone to my sister or girlfriend or my phone went missing or something.’ You have to prove who is behind the keyboard or in this case the smartphone,” says Koopman.
In the end, Koopman feels public shaming by other tweeters is probably the best weapon. “I have noticed how the public has stepped up for the police and almost done the shaming themselves,” he says.
That was certainly the case in Toronto, where other tweeters called RIDE tattlers “losers” and “dirt bags.”