COVID-19 fears don’t free Langley man accused in gun case

A man charged with firearms possession and multiple alleged frauds will be in jail until trial

The threat of coronavirus in B.C. prisons was an element in a Langley man’s failed plea to stay out of prison while awaiting trial on charges that he fraudulently bought guns and gun parts online.

Rene Eric Berlinguette faces a number of charges stretching back more than a year and a half.

• In September 2018, he was alleged to have fraudulently used a credit card to buy $2,398 worth of goods, including guns, from an online gun vendor. The items were delivered to Berlinguette’s Langley home, where police later found evidence linking him to the credit card transactions.

• Then on Oct. 16, 2018, Berlinguette was accused of possession of stolen credit cards, IDs, credit card forgery equipment, stolen mail, illegal guns, ammunition, and gun accessories. The two 2018 incidents led to a total of 15 charges.

• In May of 2019, Berlinguette allegedly used a stolen credit card. In that case, a Langley home’s front door had been kicked in and thousands of dollars worth of items were stolen. Berlinguette was arrested after he was spotted on video using credit cards taken from the home, resulting in three more criminal charges.

Arrested for the stolen credit card charge on Oct. 15 last year, Berlinguette has been behind bars ever since. He has pleaded guilty to three breaches of probation while awaiting trial on his other charges. A B.C. Provincial Court judge has already declined to grant him bail, and Berlinguette appealed to the B.C. Supreme Court.

Berlinguette has a criminal record stretching back 18 years, noted B.C. Supreme Court Justice Paul Riley, during his March 25 decision on release.

“By my count at the time of the bail hearing in the Provincial Court he had 14 prior convictions, from 2002 through to 2019, along with some additional findings on his record for breach of bail and breach of conditional sentence orders,” Riley wrote.

The Crown asked for Berlinguette to remain behind bars until his trials early next year, as he represents a risk to reoffend.

Berlinguette’s lawyer, Dale Melville, argued that the 43-year-old accused has substance abuse problems, and has worked as a dry waller, with some “gaps” in his criminal record indicating he has had periods of success in avoiding criminal behaviour.

A previous ruling in B.C. Provincial Court had already found that Berlinguette is “uninclined or unwilling,” to comply with court orders, Riley’s judgment noted.

Riley also noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a factor in any release since Berlinguette appealed the court’s decision that he stay behind bars.

A previous B.C. court ruling took into account the difficulty of social distancing while being held in prison, where inmates must usually share cells.

“I acknowledge the logic behind that concern, but on the other hand I have been provided with some information to indicate that those responsible for the administration of pre-trial detention facilities in this province have specific measures in place to monitor and address COVID-19 risks,” Riley wrote.

There are dozens of confirmed and suspected COVID-19 cases at Mission Institution, a federal prison. Suspects awaiting trial are kept in different, pre-trial holding facilities. The outbreak at Mission Institution happened after the judge’s ruling.

The coronavirus had also changed Berlinguette’s release plan.

Originally, he had asked to be released into a residential drug treatment facility. However, few facilities are now accepting new clients because of the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Berlinguette’s new plan to be released on $2,000 cash deposit to live with his brother in Aldergrove was given a skeptical assessment by the judge.

“Cash bail is, in my view, most useful in addressing primary ground concerns about risk of flight,” Riley wrote. “Cash bail is much less useful in addressing concerns about the secondary ground, that is, risk to public safety.”

Riley noted the previous judge was told the risk of reoffending would be reduced by drug abuse treatment.

“The new release plan does not, in my view, represent a material step forward in terms of addressing that risk,” Riley wrote.

The judge noted that right now Berlinguette is attending a drug counselling program, which is a positive step. But his release plan offers even less assurance now than the plan he previously presented to the provincial court judge.

Riley ordered him to stay in prison. Berlinguette’s trials are scheduled for spring of 2021.

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