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3 men accused in Montreal car theft ring walk free due to court delays

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Even though authorities are trying to crack down on car thefts in Montreal, three men accused of operating a luxury car theft ring in the city walked free last month because it took too long for their case to go to trial.

In a ruling handed down by the Court of Quebec, Justice Salvatore Mascia said he "had no choice" but to issue a stay of proceedings against Obeida Borghol, James Rizk and Ali Trad.

The trio was set to go on trial on May 6, 2024, after being charged in 2021 following a month-long investigation by several Montreal police officers.

However, the judge said the time it took for Crown prosecutor to move the case forward through the justice system was unreasonable and violated the accused's Charter right to a speedy trial.

Justice Mascia underlined how "regrettable" his decision was because investigative efforts by Montreal police were wasted.

"Not without concern, car theft has become a scourge throughout the country and particularly in the City of Montreal," he wrote in his Jan. 22 decision.

The ruling comes as the federal government and local police are taking steps to address rising concerns about car theft, particularly in hot spots like Montreal.

The three men were allegedly part of a "simple but structured" car theft operation.

According to the investigator, they would rent high-end vehicles from car rental companies, install a GPS tracking device and make a copy of the key.

Then, when another customer rented the vehicle, the alleged thieves would track its location and steal it, according to the judgment.

The vehicles that were targeted include Jeep Grand Cherokees, Dodge Durangos, Toyota RAV4s and a Hyundai Tucson. 

Extensive police work was involved, including several hours of on-the-ground surveillance, collaboration with police in Ontario, at least six warrants to obtain cellphone records and seizing surveillance video footage.

The prosecution relied on two arguments to justify the delay: the case was overly complex and was affected by a backlog of cases due to the pandemic.

However, the judge ruled that "the case was mishandled at the very beginning of the proceedings," and that while the COVID-19 health crisis did have a domino effect on delaying court cases over the years, the Crown failed to make sure this case didn't fall through the cracks.  

"The Court is of the opinion that the backlash effect of COVID-19 cannot continue to serve as a blanket exemption justifying the delays in the case at hand," wrote Justice Mascia, adding, "there must come a time when the pandemic can no longer be considered an exceptional circumstance."

Cases must be completed in provincial courts within 18 months, according to the limits established by the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark ruling in 2016, known as the Jordan decision.

When subtracting the length of delay attributed to the defence in the case of Rizk, the court is left with a delay of 1,101 days — more than twice the limit set by the Jordan decision.

The defence delay was calculated at 286 days combined for the other two accused, leaving an overall delay of 815 days, which exceeded the limit by nearly eight months.

Last week, Quebec provincial police said a new mixed police squad recovered 53 stolen vehicles at the Port of Montreal after searching 26 shipping containers.

Officers note that stolen cars often end up there before being shipped overseas.

Earlier this month, the federal government announced $28 million to fight the export of stolen vehicles by giving the Canada Border Services Agency more resources to detect and search containers.

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