Group home resident's right to a cellphone examined at Charlottetown hearing

·3 min read
The question of whether access to a cellphone is necessary for rehabilitation came up at a Charlottetown legal review on Friday.  (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)
The question of whether access to a cellphone is necessary for rehabilitation came up at a Charlottetown legal review on Friday. (Garrett Barry/CBC - image credit)

Justice officials have ordered a new risk assessment for a P.E.I. man being treated for sexual deviancy, after he was found to be using his cellphone to access pornography — and solicit potential sexual partners — while living in a provincial group home.

The hearing, in front of a five-person panel of the Criminal Code Review Board (CCRB), weighed the potential risks of cellphone use by people in custody against legitimate needs for online access.

"Is access to a cellphone important in this day and age?" Justin Milne, the man's lawyer, asked during Friday's hearing at the P.E.I. Supreme Court building in Charlottetown. "Does loss of his cellphone have negative impacts on his liberties?"

The man, now 32, had been living at Hillsborough Hospital and other provincial facilities for more than a decade. He was charged in 2010 with sex crimes against a young woman, but was found not criminally responsible after a mental health assessment.

Canada's Criminal Code says a finding of not criminally responsible is necessary when someone accused of a crime was "suffering from a mental disorder that rendered the person incapable of appreciating the nature and quality of the act … or of knowing that it was wrong."

Last September, the man was transferred to a small group home operated by Health P.E.I., just outside of Charlottetown.

Phone access removed twice

In December, staff of the group home took the man's phone away for a month after they discovered he'd been communicating with someone described in court as a "vulnerable" woman, in violation of conditions placed on him by the courts.

[He] puts out a wide net on the internet in terms of sexual interactions and staff are concerned about that. We — and he — don't know who he's in contact with. - Case worker

The woman, feeling threatened, eventually blocked him.

"[He] puts out a wide net on the internet in terms of sexual interactions and staff are concerned about that," one of the man's case workers testified. "We — and he — don't know who he's in contact with."

After the man got his phone back, trouble continued. Within weeks, he was in contact with a woman he later told group home staff he "met in high school," who offered to send him nude photos in return for money.

Staff discovered the photos, confiscated the cellphone again, and confronted the man. They testified he lied to them about what he'd been up to, and tried to hide his online activity.

'Deceitfulness' causes worry

The man's phone privileges remain cut off, following two more incidents involving the woman offering to sell him nude photos.

"The lying and deceitfulness worries me from a risk perspective," testified another case worker.

The man's lawyer argued his client needs a phone to successfully move back into the community some day. Milne argued that the man is currently engaged to be married, and "deserves some expectation of privacy" in texts and other online communications.

Staff at the group home agreed that cellphone use — of an acceptable nature — is important to rehabilitation. However, they pointed out that the home is equipped with a landline telephone and desktop computer for use by residents.

Milne suggested the man's court orders should more clearly spell out what is acceptable cellphone use.

Hard to define what's acceptable

Others disagreed.

"It's lunacy to try to define acceptable behaviours too closely," said Michael Drake, a lawyer for Health P.E.I. "Taking away his phone does not cut off his rights … Let his case workers continue to use their judgment."

The man's last risk assessment for sexual deviancy was conducted in 2018.

Dr. Robert Jay, a psychiatrist on the man's treatment team, testified on Friday that the man lacks comprehension that what he did was wrong. Jay testified he doubts much has changed since 2018.

The CCRB panel ordered a new risk assessment, and ruled that the man should continue to be held for treatment, with cellphone access to be controlled by the group home staff.

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