Between 2014 and 2017, York Regional Police officers put ads on the “escorts” section of the now-closed website Backpage.com. When people responded, an undercover officer posing as a sex worker would eventually disclose “she” was actually younger than 18 — as young as 14 years old.
Police arrested everyone who actually showed up to the hotel room — 104 men — and charged them with child sex offenses.
Project Raphael was the first investigation of its kind in Ontario — it has been used often in the US and once before in BC — opening questions about whether the police sting amounted to entrapment. On Thursday, the nine justices of the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled it did not.
Police cannot induce someone to commit a crime or provide opportunities to commit a crime. There is an exception when there is a “reasonable suspicion about a sufficiently precise space” and “genuine purpose of investigating and repressing crime.”
Lawyers for some of the men charged argued that the investigation was too broad, encompassing a whole website, and did not just target people seeking minors for sexual purposes.
The court disagreed, finding there was a “sufficiently precise space” — the section of the York Region escort subdirectory of Backpage that emphasized the sex worker’s extreme youth.
Given police knowledge of how such ads were being used to facilitate “child luring” and other such offences, if investigators “were to address offenses related to juvenile sex work, ads in the York Region escort subdirectory of Backpage for the youngest sex workers were places to do so,” the court found in the decision R. v Ramelson.
The police ads emulated the already present ads investigators knew were being used by sex workers under the age of 18, and emphasized the word “young” with a photo of a woman wearing a T-shirt with the name of a local high school. In the ensuing messaging conversation with one man, the undercover officer posing as “Michelle” revealed she and her “young friend” were 14 — an age chosen by police to capture the most serious offenders.
“In 2014-15, posing most often as a 16-year-old, the police made a total of 32 arrests in eight days online. In 2016, with the age lowered to 15, the police made 53 arrests in eight days. And in 2017, with the age further lowered to 14, the police made 19 arrests in four days. In total, Project Raphael led to the arrest of 104 people, all in only 20 days of operation,” according to the decision.
The court also found that there are limited alternative methods of investigation for the police to use to target such offenders. However, the court also stressed careful boundaries must be applied when police are investigating in the vast, borderless virtual space.
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