Facebook finger pointing leads to false arrest
TORONTO - Artist Lizz Aston used to think her picture on Facebook helped business until Toronto Police used it as an online suspect lineup.
In fact, the 28-year-old, says Toronto Police used social media to falsely, and ineptly, accuse her of an assault in a bar she hadn't even been inside for months.
It's a Facebook felony that shakes confidence in police's use, or misuse, of public information.
"I was recently accused of assault and arrested based on a thumbnail photo from my profile pic on Facebook," she wrote on the very same Facebook page. "Please let this be an eye opener."
She said she received an e-mail in January from a Toronto Police officer in 14 Division "asking me to contact them about an incident that occurred at The Piston (on Bloor St. W., Nov. 19, 2011)."
When she called an officer told her "there was an altercation at the bar, two girls got in a fight and the girl who was assaulted has pointed you out as being her assaulter through a photo on Facebook."
Aston was shocked.
"I checked back to see what I was doing the night in question (and) I was at an art opening half way across the city."
Trusting the system she went in Jan. 7 and explained "I wasn't even there and showed her old text messages on my phone to prove it."
In an interview she said, "I told the officer I was at an art opening for a friend, then went home with my boyfriend because he injured his knee. We stayed in for the rest of the night and I did research on the computer for an art installation I was working on. The officer didn't care ... I don't think the police looked into it further."
Aston said, the officer "read me my rights. I was searched, finger printed and processed."
She retained a lawyer "had numerous court dates and spent thousands of dollars to right this wrong."
She described it as "outrageous" that someone could "scroll down the friends list for the bar and point out someone that had brown hair and bangs" and that would be enough to enter someone into the justice system.
The ordeal ended March 27 when the charges were withdrawn. But is it really over?
I called media spokesman Const. Tony Vella, someone I highly respect, to check into this. He called Const. Kristal McCullough who, he said, told him that although the charges had been withdrawn, there had been a peace bond entered into by Aston to stay away from the complainants.
She must have been at the bar was the conclusion.
But Lizz was adamant "I did not agree to a peace bond" and after her lawyer presented "evidence" to show" I wasn't even there," the Crown "expressed it was unfortunate that I had to pay someone to do the work that the police should have done to begin with."
The charges were officially withdrawn with no peace bond.
So why was Vella told otherwise?
He said he was told the police computer system showed "charges withdrawn -- peace bond."
Later a Vella call to the Crown's office clarified the error. I thanked him for double checking but also expressed my disappointment that we were both misled but he assured me it was more "confusion" with the paperwork and unintentional. "There was a thorough investigation after the complainant identified the suspect on Facebook and there were grounds to lay charges," said Vella.
The assertion is laughable, says Aston.
"It was lazy and incompetent and it's not okay," she said, adding she now has no trust in police. "It's very scary."
So why didn't the 14 Division officer, who, if on-line information is to be trusted earned $105,896 in 2011, not consider the possibiltiy a 5-foot-2, 115-pound artist with no criminal record may not have been in a fight in a bar she had not been in since September?
Perhaps a Google search of the art show could have offered some assistance?
In the interest of public confidence, the professional standard's branch, and the Crown's office, should investigate both what appears to be shoddy police work relying uncorroborated online evidence and that improper information of an innocent person seems to have been entered into the system.
Identity is important as we learned with the tragedy of mentally-ill Charlie McGillivray, who died in an arrest of a person police thought to be a bail breacher named Raymond and in the beating -- in front of his children -- that Ross Kennedy took from officers saying they were looking for someone named Elizabeth?
While Aston "has not looked into" any avenues of complaint, an apology may be warranted. Hopefully, at least, someone at Toronto Police cares enough to remove the inaccurate peace-bond information from their record's system.
There will be a legal fee fund-raiser at The Piston where a starving artist's friends may wisely choose to stay out of Facebook party picture postings.