Cyberbullying, Social Media Networks And Sentencing of Adults Preying on Children : Court Strikes a Hard Blow

Guest Blogger: Brock Jones, Crown Law Criminal

How should the courts address appropriate sentences for online predators who prey on vulnerable children through various forms of cyberbullying? This was the question put squarely to the Alberta Court of Appeal in R v Mackie (2014 ABCA 221).

Background

Statistics Canada reported this summer that the traditional crime rate in Canada fell 8% from 2012 to 2013, reaching its lowest level since 1969. But this general decline in crime rates overshadows a disturbing countertrend – the rise in online crimes against children.

Crimes constituting sexual violations against children increased 6% from 2012. In particular, the crime of using a computer to lure a child for the purpose of facilitating a sexual offence increased a staggering 30% over the course of a year. Sexual exploitation increased 11%. Child pornography offences, now almost always conducted via online means, were also up 21% since 2012 and an almost incomprehensible 163% since 2003.

These prosecutions have become increasingly complicated as their perpetrators attempt to hide behind the cloak of online anonymity and the victims may exist anywhere in the world. Yet the victims – defenceless children – are our most vulnerable members and often the least able to seek help and protection when they most need it. These crimes truly do strike at the core of our collective well-being and shared values.

Facts of R v Mackie

MacKie pleaded guilty to 39 offences, all of which involved crimes against children. They were generally described by the Court of Appeal as “cyberbullying and online sexual exploitation” and continued over the course of four years. Mackie, then in his early 20s, used his knowledge of computers to create fake internet profiles to communicate with 21 children between the ages of 11 and 16. He contacted them through popular online social networking sites by pretending to be of a similar age.

He obtained their contact information. He asked very personal, often sexualized questions of them. He cajoled them to provide sexually explicit or suggestive photographs, and then threatened to distribute those photographs to their friends and family if they did not provide even more revealing photos and videos. He ultimately took control of their online accounts, posted their photographs online, and contacted their friends and siblings.

These victims were described as being “completely overwhelmed”, feeling “terrified and trapped”, and were “greatly traumatized.” At least one even considered suicide to escape the online hell Mackie had created for him. The torment was found to have had a lasting impact on the children: see para 4-8.

The Sentence

The trial judge imposed a global sentence of 11 years in a penitentiary. Mackie had no prior criminal record. He expressed little remorse for his actions and stated he enjoyed the “thrill of the hunt”: see para 9.

The Court of Appeal upheld the sentence. Noting he was nothing short of a “cruel predator of children”, the Court explained that we have, as a society, come to better appreciate the “full magnitude of the impact such crimes have on children” and that they can lead to children taking their own lives: see para 17.

At paragraph 18, the Court concluded forcefully and clearly:

Society cannot tolerate such offences, and we are determined to do what we can protect children from cyberbullying and exploitation. In cases such as that before us, we must resort to imprisonment, emphasizing the sentencing objectives of punishment, punishment and deterrence.

As the courts continue to take notice of the lasting and terrible harm associated with cyberbullying, R v Mackie will serve as a powerful precedent for future abusers.

Available Online Resources

On September 8, 2014, the Government of Canada announced part of its strategy to combat online cyberbullying. The government also runs a website, Get Cyber Safe, with very helpful information and tools to assist both parents and teens address cyberbullying and its consequences.

As part of that announcement, Public Safety Canada further notes the following:

  • The RCMP’s Centre for Youth Crime Prevention offers resources such as fact sheets, lesson plans, and interactive learning tools, to youth, parents, police officers and educators on bullying and cyberbullying; and
  • The Canadian Centre for Child Protection’s Cybertip.ca and NeedHelpNow.ca websites allow Canadians to report online sexual exploitation of children and seek help from exploitation resulting from the non-consensual sharing of sexual images.