Letter attacking boy with autism not a hate crime, police say

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Suggestion to euthanize the boy does not meet the Crown’s criteria for a hate crime, but the investigation continues.

A devastating letter sent to the family of a teen with autism is hateful, but not a hate crime, police say.

“Despite the hateful language used, the Crown Attorney’s office has advised that the content of the letter falls below the threshold for a hate crime,” Durham Region police said in a statement Tuesday. “However, there are other Criminal Code issues that are being considered.”

The criminal code defines hate propaganda as a statement that advocates genocide, publicly incites hatred, or wilfully promotes hatred.

Although the message in the anonymous letter has been spread widely by concerned family and friends, the fact that the offensive screed was addressed to one specific family makes it an improbable hate crime charge, lawyers say.

“If you can’t show that someone has published broadly, then are they really trying to promote hatred or are they just being a nuisance to the poor parents?” said lawyer Philip Tunley, speaking generally, and not about specific facts of the case. “It’s a tough one, but that’s the kind of thing a Crown attorney would look at.”

On Friday, Brenda Millson, the grandmother of 13-year-old Maxwell Begley, received a letter in the mail at her Newcastle home. The anonymous writer, who claims to live in the neighbourhood, complained about the noises the teen makes when outside and wrote that the teen was a “hindrance to everyone.”

Letter received by Maxwell Begley's grandmother in Newcastle by torontostar

“Do the right thing and move or euthanize him!!! Either way, we are ALL better off!!!” The letter closes: “Sincerely, one pissed off mother!”

Begley, who loves go-karts and boat rides, was diagnosed with autism when he was 20 months old. He lives in Oshawa but often stays overnight at his grandmother’s home. His family has been devastated by the letter, but heartened by the outpouring of community support.

Mark Sandler, a criminal lawyer who has given lectures on legal remedies to combat hate, said that even though the teen’s autism is central to the letter, “the direction wasn’t that you commit genocide against all autistic children, or that you do something against all autistic children.”

“If the Crown looks at it, there would be all kinds of problems dealing with it in the hate propaganda section,” he said.

Bullying expert and former special education teacher Barbara Coloroso said that while some bigotry is rooted in ignorance, this letter is an example of targeted bullying.

“What this is about is being cruel and getting pleasure from someone else’s pain … there is no redeeming value to anything she has said,” she said. “She’s taken the time, there would be a sense of glee as she delivered it almost, knowing that this other woman would be in pain.”

Ryder Gilliland, a lawyer with expertise in defamation, wondered if a defamatory libel charge might be considered. Unlike common-law defamation, the rarely used criminal version doesn’t require third party publication — only that a statement is shown or delivered with the intent that it is read by the defamed person, or any other person.

“Really, it’s done with an intent to injure the person, rather than with an intent to promote hate,” Gilliland said. “It’s malicious, and it’s specifically targeted at this family.”

The Crown could possibly consider a harassment charge, which involves threatening conduct that causes someone to fear for his or her safety. A mischief charge is another option.

“One could make a stretch, and say, (if) you send this kind of hate letter to somebody, you’re interfering with their lawful use and enjoyment of the property,” Sandler said of the mischief charge.

“Without expressing an opinion as to whether it qualifies, I know what I would be look at if the police asked for my opinion, I’d be looking at, a section called mailing obscene matter,” he said.

The obscure section of the Criminal Code says anyone commits an offence “who makes use of the mails for the purpose of transmitting or delivering anything that is obscene, indecent, immoral or scurrilous,” Sandler explained.

Another possible charge could be counselling an offence not committed.

“Now, was the letter counselling her to euthanize, or would it be more appropriate to interpret it as saying either move out or euthanize? Alternative threats have been regarded as threatening death in the past. If you say to someone, either leave the neighbourhood or I’ll kill you, that’s been held to be threatening death,” he said.

Another avenue could be a rarely used section of the Canada Post Corporation Act.

“If you’ve used the mails to counsel the commission of a criminal offence, the federal minister can take away your mailing privileges,” Sandler said. “It comes up for some of the hate mongers that have qualified as hate propagandists.”

Police are still in the early stages of the investigation. They weren’t able to discuss possible charges at this stage.

Police are asking anyone with new information about the investigation to contact Det.-Const. Thompson of the East Division Criminal Investigations Bureau at 888-579-1520, ext. 1604.



The criminal code seems to indicate that a hate crime is "nothing personal"