Suspended Justice: Presumed guilty

Carrie-Lynn Serbinek on a much better day than the one when her mug shot was taken. Submitted photo.

In Canada, accused persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But according to one area woman, it doesn’t feel that way when you are kneeling on the ground with several police officers pointing guns at you.

That scenario was just the beginning of what the Canadian legal system had in store for Carrie-Lynn Serbinek, whose only mistake was forgetting her duffle bag in an acquaintance’s car. She has since spent a seemingly endless amount of time accused of a crime she didn’t commit, in police interrogations, in prison, in “the hole,” on house arrest. And when she was finally proven innocent, she lived with the notoriety of her identity being shared in the media, including Kingstonist. Her story goes to show that justice doesn’t always mean absolution.

In October 2022, the Central Hastings Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) released a mug shot of Serbinek to the media, saying she was wanted in connection with an incident in Bancroft, where someone shot at an occupied home with an Avtomat Kalashnikova (AK-47), a gas-operated assault rifle that is illegal in Canada.

At the time of the incident, Serbinek was in Orillia, where she had grown up, picking up some of her belongings from a storage unit. She had no idea she was being sought for the crime.

She and a friend were driving back to Napanee when they decided to get off the 401 to gas up the U-Haul they were driving. Serbinek says, “We were coming off at Shannonville exit when we saw like eight or nine police vehicles.” She and her friend were pulled over in what they thought was a routine traffic stop. 

Suddenly, she says, “All the cops had their weapons, their guns drawn on me, and they’re like, ‘Back up’ and ‘Get on your knees on the ground.’” She still struggles to find the words to describe it. “It was pretty tragic, to be honest. I still can’t wrap my head around it. I know they have a way of the law, but I never even had a chance to understand why it was happening.”

Then came the interrogation. In Canada, we have what is called an adversarial system of prosecution. There are two sides to a case: the accused and their legal team are on one side against the Crown, who is represented by the police and Crown prosecutors. The police’s job is to collect as much evidence as possible to help the Crown get a conviction, and they are allowed to lie to suspects to help their investigation.

It is unclear whether the officers interrogating Serbinek were lying or if it was a case of mistaken identity, but they told her they had her on video at the scene of a crime. Serbinek was baffled, knowing she had been about 100 kilometres from Bancroft when the crime occurred. “They were saying, ‘We have you on camera, without a doubt, at the scene.’… I felt trapped; no one was listening to me. I don’t even have words to describe exactly how I felt.”

Eventually, she was taken to Quinte Detention Centre. At this point, she had not yet had any contact with her family or a lawyer. “I was put in the hole for a week. I didn’t get a phone call for the first four days. It was already a lot — being arrested, having my picture on the news — and then to get into jail and I get shoved downstairs into the hole. I didn’t have phone calls for four days, no family, nothing. I didn’t even get a call to my lawyer.”

Serbinek spent seven weeks in QDC despite having not committed any crime. Photo by Michelle Dorey Forestell/Kingstonist.

Carrie-Lynn says she wept endlessly: “Every day, all night, that’s all I did was cry.” One correctional officer seemed to take pity on her when she told her story and finally took her to a phone on the fourth day. She called her dad.

At this point, she explains, even her father was skeptical. Serbinek doesn’t deny her life had been going down a very dark path. In fact, she has the mug shot to prove it — but not because she committed any crimes. 

Serbinek’s husband died in 2021 of pancreatic cancer when he was just 33. Her life imploded, she says. “He was diagnosed and gone in seven months, and we lost our house. I lost my job at the nursing home. I loved it there, but they gave me the ultimatum: you either come to work (because it was during COVID) or we’ll have to let you go. My husband had just been given seven months to live, and I’m gonna be at home with my husband.” She says she couldn’t risk the time he had left by bringing home COVID-19.

“I just lost so much all at once… my husband, my work, my house, and I just kind of spiralled out of control.” At rock bottom, drugs dulled the pain of existence. Her dad hesitated to help her out of jail, fearing it would enable that behaviour.

When she was finally allowed into a regular cell, she says, “another lady that got put into the same cell [had] a positive scan for possible drugs in her rectum. So because she was my cellmate, they locked me down with her for another week… I didn’t get any outside time, no nothing. It was like torture.”

Luckily, she was finally introduced to Dawn Quelch, a lawyer in Napanee. Quelch says Serbinek’s case is “really illustrative of how, with a bit of bad luck and bad circumstance, anyone… could end up before the court.”

Quelch confirms the case as illustrated so far: “Carrie-Lynn came into this situation without any previous involvement with the criminal justice system. She had been a fine, upstanding member of society. Her long-term partner got quite ill. She ended up becoming the palliative caregiver for them. And when they eventually died, it devastated her; her entire purpose had been caregiving. She slipped into some drug use, ran with a bad crowd, and woke up in a hotel room to the door being banged on. So she answered, not knowing that the people she was in that room with had a whole bunch of guns and drugs and everything else.” She was taken in by police, which is what led to that mug shot, but she was released when they realized she had nothing to do with the crimes.

That was in March 2022.  Then in October 2022, Quelch continues, “near Bancroft, a house ends up being shot up by an AK-47, and police find the AK-47 near the property, and they find a wrecked vehicle nearby. In the trunk is a duffle bag with some of Carrie-Lynn’s belongings. An initial witness interview seemed to support Carrie-Lynn’s being at the scene. They arrest her, and she’s in custody, and that’s when I met her.” 

Carrie-Lynn explained that one day in October, she visited a friend in Deseronto. She was in need of a ride to Belleville, and her friend said her boyfriend was heading that way and offered to take Serbinek along. When she reached Belleville, she absentmindedly left her duffle bag in the trunk of his car.

“She’s telling me, ‘I wasn’t there. I had nothing to do with it,'” Quelch explains. “And, you know, quite often people in the bail stage are desperate. Being in jail is very soul-destroying, especially if they’ve not been there before. You lose touch with everybody and everything in your life that makes you an individual. You are placed into an environment where you have no control over anything. So, frankly, I am used to people denying the allegations — but then you start building the trust with them as a lawyer.”

Carrie-Lynn was different, says Quelch. “She just kept insisting, ‘It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.’… She gave me a very cogent timeline of where she had been at the time in question. And it was hundreds of kilometres away.” 

“And now, with her in custody, she has no access to her cell phone. I’m taking very detailed notes from her about exactly who she had communicated with, where she had gone, and what paths they had taken, and trying to see if we could find anything that would corroborate it,” Quelch details.

“We identified a few businesses where surveillance footage might have captured her then. We also identified several conversations on social media and knew the geolocation metadata on those messages, which would support her alibi; those messages were sent from her device, nowhere near where this crime had occurred.”

Quelch calls it following a breadcrumb trail “involving cameras and surveillance footage that I couldn’t guarantee existed. It involved re-interviewing witnesses who had already given statements for identification. And that had required a lot of legwork from the OPP. In this situation, they were open-minded enough that an officer was tasked with following these breadcrumbs. And it took a little while, but it bore fruit.”

“There’s often an attitude [on the part of police] of ‘We’ve solved the crime, the file is with the Crown, now it’s up to them if they’re going to prosecute; what are you talking to us for?’’’ Quelch says. However, she was pleasantly surprised when a female officer tracked down all the information proving Carrie-Lynn innocent.

Carrie-Lynn could identify the vehicle she had left her duffle bag in, and her social media use showed she couldn’t have been in Bancroft.

At that point, Quelch says, “The officer agreed to revisit the interview with the witness who had confirmed the identity. And that witness had the grace and composure to say, ‘I’m not as sure as I thought I was.’”

Once they had reached that confirmation level, Serbinek was allowed bail. “It took quite a bit longer to get to the point where the charges were withdrawn,” Quelch says, “but it did eventually happen.” When it did, Serbinek’s father and stepmother put up thousands of dollars for bail — but she had to move in with them in Orillia, away from her children, to await what the legal system had in store next.

Quelch emphasizes that the withdrawal of charges happened “because the police were willing to go back and revisit the earlier conclusions, and because they were willing to put boots on the ground to put actual effect into the presumption of innocence.”

At one point, Carrie-Lynn Serbinek was facing 34 counts across three jurisdictions involving significant drug trafficking activity, firearm trafficking, and the use of prohibited weapons in the form of a machine gun with shots fired at an occupied home.

Quelch empathizes with the shock and terror Serbinek experienced. “It was very scary for her… and you’re in this fight of your life as well. You’re in custody, and whether or not you get to use the phone depends on whether the guards will let you, whether you’ve got money in your account… You’ve got no access to your online banking or social media to prove your alibi. You’re very vulnerable.”

Quelch and Serbinek are both extremely grateful for the OPP officer who helped prove Serbinek innocent. “She must have faced a certain amount of being looked at sideways: ‘Hey, we closed this one. What are you doing with it?’ Yet they persisted in it, and it resulted in the truth. And that’s really what this whole system’s about—” she corrects herself — “is supposed to be about.”

Quelch also points out that in this case, the Crown “showed immense fairness in agreeing to let [Serbinek] bail out as we were tidying it up… That is what was fair for [Carrie-Lynn], but it also allowed us to firm up aspects of her defence,” which Quelch emphasized is “very difficult to do when your clients are in custody, especially in the current political climate. We’re facing societal attitudes where there’s some concern that bail is a revolving door or that the courts aren’t taking this seriously.”

Unfortunately, not everything is tidy. Since the publication of that mug shot and her false arrest, Serbinek has struggled to find work. As Quelch points out, the mug shot of Serbinek was taken at the “worst moment of her life, the moment she was her least favourite version of herself”; then it was publicized by the media at the behest of the OPP, based on a false accusation. 

“It hurts,” Serbinek says. Recently, “I was interviewing for a job at [a restaurant in Napanee], and the employer said she had ‘vetted me on social media’ and couldn’t possibly hire me. Then she wanted me to explain my story to her, and she’s like, ‘I really can’t go hiring you given the circumstances, and I would prefer if you cleared your name before I give you a chance working at my establishment.’”

Serbinek says this made her feel even more violated. “As an employer, your way to go is to do a criminal record check, which I would have been more than willing to pay 50 dollars to have done to prove myself. I felt humiliated to explain myself to someone who doesn’t know anything about the situation.”

Not only that, but in Ontario, a person cannot be discriminated against in employment because of a “record of offences.” Employment decisions cannot be based on whether a person has been convicted for an offence under provincial or federal law. Employers must look at a person’s record of offences and consider whether the offence would affect their ability to do the job and the risk associated with doing it. For example, you could refuse to hire a bus driver with serious or repeated driving convictions. But someone with no criminal record does not owe anyone an explanation.

Luckily, Serbinek has now found a job with a good employer she deeply appreciates.  

She has also worked hard to re-establish her family life, which had eroded slightly because of the false arrest. She has missed out on some of the milestone events like high school graduations because she was incarcerated or on bail conditions for a crime she did not commit.

And frankly, there is a degree of embarrassment. “My mug shot was in the news, and even though I was innocent, kids can be cruel and say mean things to my [teenage child]. I don’t want them to have to go through that.” It has all been a lot for a family to go through, but she says she and her three young adult/teen kids are “all good again. You know, it didn’t take much. I have always had a really close, special relationship with my kids.”

For its part, the OPP hasn’t said much about the false arrest. OPP communications offered no comment, explaining, “We do not comment on the status of charges once they go to court. We would refer you to the court for that information.”

Surprisingly, the OPP doesn’t even acknowledge the good work and dedication of the officer who worked to establish Serbinek’s innocence, saying, “That officer is part of the Central Hastings Detachment. The Commander and the local Crime Sergeant are not familiar with the issue you are talking about.”

Quelch says people who work with the accused rarely get praise. “When the court is dealing with the people who come forward as surety or the people who work in the community to help rehabilitate and supervise offenders, they get a very different reception from our system, which praises those who serve on a jury. Nobody cares about the accused, who might be innocent.”

Quelch highly praises the OPP officer who did her due diligence: “This officer cared enough to do the legwork. This officer cared enough about the truth to actually put herself out there, when the police already had somebody in custody on the charges [and had] already gotten the ‘attaboy’ from the public, from the media, for ‘solving this crime.’ There was nothing in it for [this officer] other than finding the truth. And it was a very welcome restoring of faith in the system.”

She also thanks the Belleville Crown’s office. “They’re very professional. They immediately recognized, once there was some confirmation coming back from the police follow-up, that, ‘You know what, we may not have this right.’ “

“It wasn’t about winning,” says Quelch. “It was about the Crown saying, ‘Okay, what actual risks are we still facing with the public? What can we safely do that will be fair to her? We owe her our best work; she is innocent until proven guilty,’ and they actually followed through on that.” 

That, Quelch says, is good for her soul. “You can’t practice law, you can’t practice criminal defence, if you don’t believe the system works.”

Now, hopefully, with her name publicly cleared, justice for Carrie-Lynn Serbinek has finally begun.

One thought on “Suspended Justice: Presumed guilty

  • I hope you can sue. Lots of “damage ” over the timespan

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