Why Riot Photos may Not be Enough Evidence in Court

June 19, 2011

In the handful of days since riots tore through downtown Vancouver, locals have taken to Facebook and other social media as a way to identify troublemakers and vandals.

But despite massive amounts of photographic evidence that appear to show rioters committing vandalism, smashing windows and assaulting bystanders, sometimes a photo is simply just a photo.

Michael Shapray, a criminal lawyer, told CTV News that the courts may ask for more than just snapshots when prosecutors eventually take the cases before a judge.

And with thousands of photos being submitted to police anonymously, some culprits could get off the hook.

"I would think that the police would want to gather as much information about the people submitting the photo and videos as they can, because in a court of law, you have to be able to call a witness who took a video or took a picture."

Still, the flurry of online activity has acted as a kind of catharsis for many Vancouver residents, angry that their city was turned into a riot zone. Within hours of the riot, thousands of images were posted onto Facebook as users attempted to identify those behind the mayhem.

Other video images have been more disturbing. Some violent videos show Good Samaritans being beaten up for trying to stop acts of vandalism. One man was sucker punched and left unconscious after stepping in.

Still, the digital evidence is having an effect, as those depicted in the photos perhaps realize the severity of their involvement.

On Saturday, a male who was depicted in several riot photos allegedly trying to torch a police vehicle turned himself in. He cannot be named because of his age.

Jordan Dyck, a photographer, videotaped some of the riot and captured some of a young man's actions.

"I know from being right there that he didn't actually light that fire," Dyck told CTV News. "It started off as a small group of people. Once the police came it spread."

The riots on Wednesday night caused millions of dollars of damage to the city and resulted in more than a dozen cars burned out, store fronts damaged and shops looted in the downtown core.

Another young man is feeling the repercussions of the riot after he was fired from his construction job for posting pro-riot comments on his Facebook page.

Connor Mcilvenna, 22, said he regrets going downtown after the game. "I didn't do anything - I was just there," he said.

But the carpenter posted statements like "Atta boy Vancity. Show him how we do it," and "Vancouver needed remodelling anyway" on his Facebook wall. His boss saw those comments and took action the next day.

Emily Carr University professor Alexandra Samuels said that the public should remember to avoid mob justice when using social media sites to identify rioters.

"There's a reason that we delegate that power to law enforcement and that's because the police have a lot of checks and balances on their behaviour," she said.

"They are accountable to a court system, they have an ombudsman, they have an oversight board they have the media that's watching. And I don't see those checks in place when it comes to the Facebook riot pics page."

Police have said that all videos from the riot are potential evidence and they're asking for the public's assistance in identifying the people involved.

- CTV/The Canadian Press