Mr. Big (police procedure)
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Mr. Big (sometimes known as the “Canadian technique”) is a covert investigation procedure used by undercover police to elicit confessions from suspects in cold cases (usually murder). Police officers create a fictitious criminal organization and then seduce the suspect into joining it. They build a “relationship” with the suspect, gain his confidence, and then enlist his help in a succession of criminal acts (e.g., credit card scams, selling guns). Once the suspect has become enmeshed in the criminal gang he is persuaded to divulge information about the specific crime under investigation.
The Mr. Big technique was developed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in British Columbia in the early 1990s. It has been used in more than 350 cases across Canada as of 2008. The RCMP claim that the person of interest was either cleared or charged in 75% of cases. Of the cases prosecuted, an estimated 95% result in a conviction.
In a Mr. Big case, the police usually place the suspect, typically someone socially isolated and financially disadvantaged, under extended surveillance, typically for weeks. Having thus learned about the suspect's personality and habits, the police develop an interactive scenario. Pretending to encounter the suspect by happenstance, an undercover operative solicits a small favor from the suspect, perhaps to fix a flat tire. Exploiting this acquaintanceship, the operative soon offers entertainment, gifts, companionship, meals, and eventually employment.
The undercover operative pays the suspect appreciable money for petty tasks, such as counting cash or making deliveries, associated with fictitious criminal activity. As these tasks grow in importance and frequency, the suspect is treated as an "up-and-comer" in a criminal organization. As many as 50 operatives may be involved, crafting "a steady escalation in association, influence and pressure, leading up to the creation of an atmosphere in which it is deemed appropriate to encourage the target to confess". Eventually, the suspect is introduced to Mr. Big, the fictitious crime organization's kingpin, actually a skilled police interrogator.
Employing enticements and threats, Mr. Big tells the suspect of receiving from the police incriminating information about the suspect, whose impending arrest threatens the gang—why Mr. Big must know the unsolved crime's details. Mr. Big may offer to clean up the situation by framing someone else, perhaps a terminally ill confederate willing to take the fall for the gang. Or Mr. Big might claim that a mole within the police department can tamper with incriminating evidence. Sometimes, the confession is demanded to show good faith, loyalty, or trustworthiness, or serve as "insurance", to Mr. Big. The final meeting is usually recorded.
Once the police obtain a confession, the lavish lifestyle and elaborate underworld evaporate, and the suspect is arrested. The Mr. Big technique is often a last resort in cold cases, or where the police's strong suspicion is paired with insufficient evidence. The Mr. Big technique has been used to secure convictions in hundreds of cases, and has been highly effective in obtaining confessions from guilty suspects. Still, the technique also gives some innocent suspects compelling motivation to remain in the criminal organization; to maintain the new lifestyle and new friends, falsely confessing to Mr. Big may then seem an acceptable risk.
The Mr. Big technique is invasive and persistent. State agents essentially infiltrate the target’s life and alter its trajectory. Complete records of what took place are rarely available, especially how the target was singled out as a suspect in the first place. Most scenarios are documented by retrospective accounts recorded by operatives hours, or days after they took place. The operation involves the abuse of trust in personal relationships, and state-sponsored deception as a form of social control. Defense lawyers and criminal specialists have argued that the method is inaccurate because it poses a risk of eliciting unreliable confessions.
The Nelson Hart Case
The flaws of the Mr. Big procedure came to light during the R. v Hart case. Nelson Hart was charged in June 2005 with the deaths of his twin 2 year old daughters who died as a result of drowning on Sunday, August 4, 2002. Hart claimed that he had taken the girls, Krista and Karen, to Little Harbour where there was a small wharf. Krista fell off of the wharf, and Hart (who could not swim) panicked and left to get help, leaving the other child. In a later interview, Hart claimed that he had had a small seizure at the time that Krista fell into the water. Karen ostensibly fell in the water during Hart’s absence. He drove home and returned with his wife. Krista was found alive but died at the hospital, and Karen was pronounced dead at the scene. The Mr. Big operation began in October 2002. Preliminary surveillance revealed that Hart was socially isolated, had few friends and went everywhere with his wife. He was also on social insurance with only a grade four education, and had a history of seizures, which became more frequent after a car crash in 1998. The first contact took place when he was paid for assisting in finding an operative’s sister. He was then asked to make some truck deliveries for which he was well paid. A friendship with his operatives developed. He began dealing in fake credit cards, forged passports, and counterfeit casino chips. Hart was made to believe that the gang was nationwide, with branches in Vancouver, Montreal and Halifax. As time went on, the seriousness of the illegal activities increased, along with the lucrativeness of the payoffs. He and his wife were treated to luxurious trips around the country, extravagant shopping sprees and expensive dinners. Hart aspired to join the gang as a full-time member. In the late spring of 2003 he was introduced to the “boss” (Mr. Big) who told Hart that something had come up from Hart’s past that the criminal organization needed to take care of. Mr. Big confronted Hart about the death of his daughters, and wouldn’t accept his seizure explanation. Under pressure, Hart confessed to pushing the girls off of the wharf. Hart then brought Mr. Big and some operatives to the scene of the crime, to re-enact the drownings. This event was videotaped and served as the primary foundation of the prosecution’s case at trial. In March 2007, a jury convicted him of two counts of first-degree murder.
Hart appealed his conviction. In 2012, in a (2-1) split decision the Court of Appeal allowed the appeal and ordered a new trial. According to Chief Justice Green, Hart “. . . was in the control of the state in a manner that was equivalent in degree to detention. It was not reasonable to expect that he would have any reason, or take any opportunity, to leave the organization. That meant he had to subscribe to the culture of the organization and to ensure that he continued to receive the approbation of Mr. Big. Although he obviously wanted to maintain that he had an innocent explanation for the deaths of his daughters, he eventually succumbed when it became clear that Mr. Big would accept no other answer than one which accepted his proposition that he was responsible for their murder. For Mr. Hart in the circumstances in which he found himself there was very little downside to telling Mr. Big what he wanted to hear, since he believed the operatives were not police and he had been assured that any information he gave would be kept from the authorities. On the other hand, in his mind, Mr. Hart had a great deal to lose if he did not accede to the required admission”. The appeal court perceived Hart’s section 7 Charter protections to have been breached.
The crown appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada, whose decision was released on July 31, 2014. Writing for a unanimous majority Justice Moldaver declared that confessions arising from Mr. Big operations would henceforth be considered “presumptively inadmissible,” subject to a two-pronged admissibility analysis”. The court ruled that the onus is on the Crown to overcome this presumption by demonstrating that the probative value of the evidence resulting from a Mr. Big operation, including the confession, outweighs its prejudicial effect (prong 1). Confirmatory evidence would constitute a “powerful guarantee of reliability”. In other words, evidence found during a Mr. Big operation would be a vital factor on the issue of reliability, and not the confession per se. The confession itself should be considered carefully to evaluate the markers of reliability. Markers of reliability include components of the confession that coincide with evidence that is known to investigators, information that is unknown to the public, and mundane details that would only be known to the person who had committed the crime. In future operations this evidentiary requirement might shift the goal from getting a confession to unearthing conclusive evidence. The Supreme Court also alerted trial judges to the possible dangers of abuse of process which might take place during Mr. Big stings, and of the need for careful scrutiny during the trials (prong 2). An abuse of process has occurred when police “overcome the will of the accused and coerce a confession”, as was said to have taken place in R. v. Hart. Overwhelming inducements, veiled threats of violence, and intimidation are examples of conduct that could be considered an abuse of process by the police.
The Dax Mack Case
Following the landmark ruling of R. v. Hart the Supreme Court of Canada issued another Mr. Big ruling on September 26, 2014. Dax Mack was suspected of murdering his roommate, who at the time was considered a missing person. A friend of Mack’s came forward to the police with claims that Mack had confessed to him about murdering his roommate. With this information, the police began a four-month Mr. Big operation which resulted in two confessions to undercover officers. Mack described shooting the victim and burning his body. During the Mr. Big operation Mack participated in roughly 30 crime scenarios, none of which included high levels of violence and he was paid approximately $5,000 for his work. Eventually the operation led undercover officers to a fire pit in a wooded area that belonged to Mack’s father. The search resulted in the discovery of the victim’s burned remains, as well as shot gun casings which matched a gun that was confiscated from the defendant’s apartment. Mack was tried and found guilty of first degree murder by a jury. Using the 2-pronged analysis from the Hart (2014) ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed Mack’s appeal in another unanimous decision. They concluded that the probative value of the confession, which was supported by discovery of new evidence, outweighed any prejudicial effect. The Court also found no abuse of process in the conduct of the undercover officers involved in the investigation.
- Someone Got Away With Murder, a film of The Fifth Estate on a wrong confession enforced by Mr. Big procedure
- R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52, para. 56
- "Undercover Operations – Questions and Answers". B.C. RCMP.
- R v Hart, 2014 SCC 52,¶233
- R v Hart, 2012 NLCA 61, ¶244
- R v Hart  SCC 52
- R v Hart  SCC ,¶590
- R. v. Mack  SCC 58
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