COLUMN: The problem with ‘right’ versus rights?

Does someone unofficially accused of child exploitation have constitutional rights, such as privacy and presumption of innocence?

COLUMN: The problem with 'right' versus rights?

On Point by Andrew Holota

Does someone unofficially accused of child exploitation have constitutional rights, such as privacy and presumption of innocence?

According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, yes.

In the court of public opinion, not so much.

The thorny problem, at least for the media, is how much is not so much?

Early last week, the Fraser Valley Creep  Catchers released one of their “gotcha” videos.

This one claimed to have snared a school principal attempting to meet a young teen girl at the Sevenoaks Shopping Centre in Abbotsford.

The Creep Catchers had allegedly lured this man into a purported meeting with the teenager, who was actually a member of the group posing online to be a youth. They confronted him, filmed it, and publicly posted the video.

Many people would say, good, expose him! The criminal justice system isn’t doing the job.

Yet, there’s a catch to the Creep Catchers, and how the media reports this. This is not a police investigation, resulting in formal criminal charges. Those might be laid once an official investigation is completed. Or, depending on what the Catchers have or – more importantly – don’t have, in terms of evidence that could result in a conviction at trial, there may be no charges laid at all.

The media generally does not identify suspects until they are charged, unless the police take the very unusual step of issuing a public warning about someone. They do so with great caution, because upon doing so, the suspect is essentially pronounced guilty in the court of public opinion.

So it would be with the school principal, who no doubt faced the immediate and brutal judgment of social media.

Many, many people can attest to being the victims of cyber-vitriol, and most of them weren’t accused of a criminal offence, especially one involving exploitation of children, which is considered one of the most heinous of all offences.

There are no trials in the digital world.

There is only verdict and punishment.

Regardless of whether you consider the Creep Catchers to be heroes, or vigilantes, the result of their sting operations is the same. The accused faces instant public condemnation and revulsion. His career could be destroyed, along with his family life. All without charge and trial.

No presumption of innocence here.

Guilty as accused, your honour.

So what, you say? He was allegedly trying to meet a young girl. Suspicious? Very. Hugely inappropriate at the least. Criminal intent? We may never know the full details if investigators or the Crown determine charges are not warranted.

And what if these amateur traps actually interfere with an ongoing police investigation or taint evidence, reducing or eliminating the possibility of criminal charges down the road?

That’s why we chose not to run the video, or identify the alleged principal or school. If he’s charged, we’ll name him.

The man doesn’t deserve that kind of protection? If so, dearly hope you never fall victim to those who step on, over or around civil rights.

The criminal justice system may be ponderous and frustratingly lenient. But it has layers of checks and balances – more than many citizens can understand or tolerate – and those safeguards protect against false accusation and a guilty verdict without fair trial.

Vigilantism features none of the above.

And if publicly outing a possible creeper  before charge or trial is acceptable, what else is?

That’s the tricky part about constitutional rights. Allow them to be compromised in one situation, and the potential exists for more – far less palatable.

Yet, when it comes to taking the law into one’s own hands, it’s commonly justified as the “right” thing to do.