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Lawyer warns about charges for tweeting RIDE stops

|Written By Kenneth Jackson

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 the RIDE tweets.

“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.”

  • Doug
    A guy .01 over legal limit isn't going to kill anyone. Enforcing ridiculously low blood alcohol levels ruins the lives of the drivers and their affected families.
  • John
    There are two ways to communicate these types of items. One is to post for the general public (which in my view would amount to obstruction as there is no control over who views or uses information of this nature. However, sending your spouse a message or a friend a message is different. If i advise my wife to take an alternate route home because the RIDE program has back up traffic to obscene levels on a particular road...there is no obstruction - afterall its not the RIDE program she is avoiding; it is the traffic caused by the RIDE program she is avoiding. In fact, if there would be no problem in being pulled over for a spot check the issue is when the police close a major roadway to conduct a RIDE stop. Why not just have the police run more spot checks on individuals (following proper procedure of course so as to not trample the charter)
  • Ian
    In Ontario it is not an offence of any kind to drive with a blood alcohol value of .05 unless the evidentiary burden of proving impaired can be met. However, your family could be stuck on the side of the road waiting for a cab and a tow truck despite not having committed any offence. Further your licence is suspended so you cannot take your children to school or go to work in the morning. Remember, no offence has been committed. I see no criminality in warning drivers who have committed no offence that a RIDE program has been set up and their liberties are about to be taken away. I am not in favour of people behind the wheel who are intoxicated. But before we cheer on RIDE programs, let us not forget that sober driving is the primary cause of accidents, injuries, and fatalities. Officers parked at the side of the road are doing nothing to combat the primary causes of injuries and fatalities.
  • Anon
    I am against drunk drivers and the sentence for that is so lax in Canada. I am also pro free speech and in Canada there is no real free speech rights. This opinion shows just that. Where is the case law to back his opinion up, where the the legal articles?
  • Gil Zvulony
    I disagree with the opinion that simply Tweeting the location of a spot check is obstruction of justice.

    Flashing high-beams has been judicially considered and is usually legal. Broadcasting a speedtrap location on the radio is also legal. See (Montréal (Ville) c. Ianni, 2009 CanLII 19264 (QC CM), )

    Tweeting a RIDE location, in most cases, would not be that different from flashing high beams and is therefore in most cases legal.

    If it were illegal, how far would we go? Is phoning my spouse to tell her of a speedtrap obstruction of justice?
  • Doug Hodgert
    Again as mentioned in the article, pray to god that the drunk driver warned doesn't go on to kill your spouse, child or loved ones. How would you free then.

    It about time we consider the rights of society as a whole, not only the rights of the offender.
  • MrBrian
    ..and what about the rights of society as a whole? If MADD has it's way they want to give police the right to pull any car over at any time no matter what to give someone a breathalyzer. I mean really! Driving to son's hockey practice and a cop pulls you over just because you are driving. Now where are the people's rights there?
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