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Media consortium seeking search warrants from Nova Scotia mass shooting

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HALIFAX — A provincial court judge says she'll push to hold hearings as quickly as possible on the public release of search warrants from the investigation into the recent mass shooting in Nova Scotia.

Judge Laurel Halfpenny MacQuarrie said Monday she's concerned courts will become very busy in early summer in the event pandemic restrictions are relaxed.

In a conference call Monday morning, Halfpenny MacQuarrie told Crown prosecutors and a lawyer representing a media consortium that she's expecting the parties to provide their positions on the release of the search warrants by next Monday morning.

"The court now has the time to deal with it," the judge said.

"I will be pushing to get this done as quickly as possible, giving everyone the full benefit of as much time as we can so they can properly put their positions before the court."

She granted a one-week delay in proceedings after federal lawyers representing the Canada Border Services Agency said they hadn't had time to review the warrants.

Lawyer David Coles, representing a variety of news organizations including The Canadian Press, said he's hoping the provincial and federal Crowns can provide portions of the search warrants that don't require redaction by next week.

However, provincial Crown Mark Heerema said prosecutors are unlikely to provide documents that soon, and he will be seeking dates for further court hearings.

As of Monday, four warrants had been executed and resulted in materials being seized after a gunman went on a rampage through five Nova Scotia communities on April 18 and 19, killing 22 people.

The gunman was shot and killed by police in Enfield, N.S., but investigators are still looking into how he obtained his weapons and whether he had any assistance in creating a replica RCMP vehicle and acquiring a police uniform.

Two other orders have been executed, but police haven't yet indicated if evidence was seized. There is one more warrant open for execution until midnight Monday.

During an April 24 news conference, RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said the RCMP has a responsibility to determine the actions of the gunman over the almost 13 hours of the rampage, and the investigation must meet the same standards as any criminal probe that would lead to a trial.

He said the priority was to determine the gunman's movements and whether anyone assisted him prior to the attacks. Campbell said the Mounties had identified more than 435 witnesses and completed "more than 20 legal applications."

Heerema noted the investigation is in its early stages, and more warrants may be issued in the future. However, the judge noted she wasn't prepared at this stage to include any future warrants in her decision.

The key legal principles on when search warrants can be released stem from a landmark 1982 Supreme Court of Canada decision, in a case launched by investigative reporter Linden MacIntyre.

The highest court ruled that once a search warrant is carried out, the warrant and supporting documents must be made public, but exceptions can be made such as protecting innocent parties if the search didn't yield evidence.

In his ruling, Justice Brian Dickson wrote, "the rule should be one of public accessibility and concomitant judicial accountability," and public access should only be restricted "to protect social values of superordinate importance."

In a later 2005 decision, Supreme Court of Canada Justice Morris Fish further commented on search warrants, stating the administration of justice "thrives on exposure to light and withers under a cloud of secrecy."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2020

Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press