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Biker gangs and the law of ‘organized’ crime

Gang experts are concerned about the resurgence of biker gangs, which seems to have gained steam with the recent release of dozens of incarcerated Hells Angels.

Last month the Quebec Court of Appeal reduced the sentences of 35 bikers after ruling that prosecutors bungled the document disclosure process. Most are back on the streets.

The setback is of a piece with another prosecutorial failure in 2011, when proceedings were halted against 31 Hells Angels because of unreasonable procedural delays. The "mega-trial," an innovation designed to crush organized crime, lies in tatters.

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Now questions must be asked about the Criminal Code's anti-gang provisions, adopted at the height of the brutal Quebec biker wars of the 1990s, in which at least 160 people died.

A recent Ontario Superior Court of Justice judgment, which centred on a drug-trafficking conspiracy involving members of the Black Pistons bikers in St. Catharines, Ont., concluded the group did not meet the standard for organized crime despite having "a widespread criminal element."

Under Section 467 of the Criminal Code, a group can be classified as criminal if it has "as one of its main purposes or activities, the facilitation or commission of one or more serious offences."

The trial judge convicted several members of the Black Pistons, but did not find that the group was inherently criminal. He found that not all members were dope dealers, and those who were did not discuss drug transactions at the same time as "club" business on police intercepts.

Legal punctiliousness is a beneficial trait, and judges must ensure that Section 467 is not misused. But if a group is organized, and members are engaging in criminal activity through the organization, the group at some point itself becomes criminal.

Biker gangs often depict themselves as mere social clubs, but many present a serious threat. It's incumbent on Crown prosecutors to revisit their practices and tactics, but Parliament could also help by revisiting and strengthening the wording of the law, to ensure that it remains able to tackle criminal biker gangs.

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