Occasionally we gaze on things in society with astonishment like when we hear about criminals being released due to non-returnable warrants. We almost inevitably have to ask, "What the hell is that?" Having a non-returnable warrant means if you commit a criminal offense in Winnipeg, then you can run to Vancouver, or you commit a crime in Toronto you can run to Vancouver, or you commit a crime in Trois Riviere and you can run to Vancouver (yes, Vancouver). Now a city in Saskatchewan has unfurled a travel program by purchasing homeless people a bus ticket to Vancouver.

Initially one Adam Croft of Ontario had been on the lam for a couple of years and suddenly became the poster boy for non-returnable warrants in Canada. When he was arrested in Vancouver on Jan 16, 2008 he was more than a wanted man, for the astonished Croft was part of a pilot project of the Vancouver Police Department in dealing with individuals who face serious charges in other jurisdictions (provinces); in the case of Croft outstanding charges include assault causing bodily harm.

Get outta town before sundown

The VPD picked him up with media in tow and after arresting Croft they asked Toronto police if they were willing to accept a return of the non-returnable, and Toronto agreed, if VPD foots the bill on transportation. Croft chose to accept justice in B.C., pleading guilty to all charges, but the Vancouver (and Victoria) police departments on Canada's west coast would continue to lead the charge against criminals who escape justice by changing locations.

Believe it or not this migratory behaviour works to escape justice, sometimes, or, in the case of some principalities, a lot of times. Vancouver police estimate they have 2,500 'warrant jumpers' inhabiting the Downtown East-side low-track hotels and streets in the city where the 'welcome wagon' delivers crack and meth. All of a sudden these folks find the welcome comes as a paddy wagon or back seat of a cruiser. The issue is raised by the VPD which won't let it die.

It used to be that a majority of non-returnable warrants related to non-indictable (non-criminal) acts like highway traffic offenses (excluding accident or injury) but police in Vancouver have long expressed the feeling they are being overrun by indictable criminals stampeding into the Lower Mainland from other jurisdictions. (More recently Vancouver has been targeted by police forces wanting to rid their streets of homeless, namely Saskatoon.) It has come to the point that, according to the VPD, the courts in southern Ontario are encouraging the out-migration of their criminals by commonly setting an '80 km perimeter of return' for the footloose; in other words, “Get out of town and you won't be pursued.”

"Arrest warrants are issued by a judge or justice of the peace under section 83.29 of the Criminal Code of Canada," says Wikipedia. "The judge must be satisfied that the person named in the warrant is (a) is evading service of the order, is about to abscond, or did not attend the examination, or did not remain in attendance, as required by the order. Once the warrant has been issued section 29 of the Code requires that the arresting officer must give notice to the accused of the existence of the warrant, the reason for it, and produce it if requested."

The problem with the warrant system is not new. A communiqué from the Vancouver City Clerk's Office Jan. 24, 1997 as issued by Vancouver City Council regarded a Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) resolution for an impending annual conference. The resolution discussed the radii of warrants under Criminal Code offences, and asserted that the criminal justice system was allowing offenders "to avoid arrest and hence prosecution, by fleeing the jurisdiction for which a warrant for their arrest is in effect."

The resolution continued, "THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Vancouver urge the Government of Canada in conjunction with all the Provincial Attorney Generals, to commit to adopting a national policy for establishing warrant radii across jurisdictions and hence ensuring a consistent approach to enforcement of the law."

In 2006 there was a resolution from the Law Amendments Committee of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police that urged Ottawa to show leadership to the provinces and create a national transportation system to bring fugitives back to face their crimes. The CACP also "urged the Minister of Justice to amend the Criminal Code to make it illegal to cross provincial boundaries to knowingly evade a regional warrant and provide stiffer sentences for those who do."

The problem arises from the order for police to arrest, which requires a statutory power. The FCM notes, "Warrants for arrest must be in effect inside the jurisdiction where police encounter the individual. The warrant must be issued to extend the radius to detain," and the FCM says that because of the multi-jurisdictional situation in justice "warrant radii are a significant impediment in the pursuit of justice," for, FCM says, "cooperation between the different agencies has historically not been easy."

Vancouver police have studied the issue and can say the justice system in Vancouver "sets the largest radius than any other jurisdiction. The radius for a warrant is determined by Crown Counsel after consultation with the police." Most indictable offences have Canada-wide warrants, but, VPD says, "Many jurisdictions outside B.C. will issue warrants with radii as little as 200 km outside the issuing agency." (Some set the radii as little as 80 km.)

The reason for setting a 'return radii' relates to cost. Return of the offender is absorbed by the jurisdiction issuing the warrant. With criminals banished to Vancouver, "Many people wanted on non-returnable warrants continue to be criminally active outside the issuing jurisdiction." A criminal element has been congregating on the west coast.

The CACP suggests amendments to the Criminal Code, "Amend sections relating to powers of arrest and warrants." The Criminal Code of Canada has 28 parts containing 848 sections. The code was first passed in 1892 and grew out of this consolidation of criminal law under a single statute.

The administration of criminal law in Canada is provincial and it is these jurisdictions that foot the bill. Bearing all this in mind the VPD created a radius guideline for common criminal offences. In most cases the warrant would be either B.C.-wide or Canada-wide (and the radius in Lower Mainland was eliminated).

According to a report from a joint Federal/Provincial Task force on trans-jurisdictional issues the Criminal Code of Canada needs to be amended to deal with these footloose criminals. The task force said a national approach must increase legal authority of local agencies in powers of arrest, but most important, the approach needs to deal with the problem on the west coast. The task force suggests "a reciprocal agreement between provinces is one solution." In addition, "a new offence of fleeing a jurisdiction to escape prosecution needs to be considered."​