Cyberstalking case spans globe: Australian court rules man must face trial on accusations by Canadian Degrassi actor
Anne Marie Owens
Photo Courtesy of http://www.degrassi.ca
Sara Ballingall played Melanie on Degrassi High, which appeared on TV in Canada from 1986 to 1991.
An Australian man will go on trial for allegedly cyberstalking a Canadian actor who appeared on the Degrassi High television show.
The Supreme Court of Victoria in Melbourne has reversed a lower court decision that dismissed the charges saying it did not have jurisdiction because the case involved a victim who lives a continent away.
The higher court judgment, which was released last week, has ruled that crimes committed over the Internet know no borders.
The case has important international implications for prosecuting this new brand of crime in which technology allows criminals to commit offences around the globe without ever leaving their homes.
“Criminals are not respecters of borders,” Justice Bill Gillard said in his ruling last week.
“State and national boundaries do not concern them. They commit their evil acts anywhere and without thought to location.”
The ruling means Brian Sutcliffe, a 37-year-old accountant who lives near Melbourne, will go to trial on charges he stalked Sara Ballingall by e-mail, mail and telephone over a six-year period.
Ms. Ballingall, who is now in her 20s and no longer an actor, played the part of Melanie Brodie, an innocent and somewhat naive character.
She began the long-running series as a lanky 12-year-old with crooked teeth and eventually blossomed into a tall, slim, young woman who was involved in various plot lines highlighting the typical travails of being a teenager.
The CBC series ran in Canada from 1986 to 1991, and in Australia between 1991 and 1995.
Mr. Sutcliffe began writing to the actor in 1994 after obtaining her home address by posing as a television producer, said Detective Savas Kyriacou, the Toronto Police officer who has investigated the case from the beginning.
The correspondence began as typical fan mail, but gradually progressed to expressions of admiration and love.
Det. Kyriacou said Mr. Sutcliffe appeared to associate Ms. Ballingall with her TV character, and began suggesting they belonged together.
The tone of his letters and e-mails turned nasty and somewhat delusional after a book he sent for her to sign was returned, unsigned.
In a message to a newsgroup for Degrassi High fans last summer, Mr. Sutcliffe denied the stalking allegations, but repeatedly referred to Ms. Ballingall as “Melanie,” and talked about how only they truly understood what was going on.
The young woman and her family became increasingly concerned about Mr. Sutcliffe’s attentions when they learned of his fascination with guns, Det. Kyriacou said.
Police seized 78 firearms from Mr. Sutcliffe’s home in 1998 after a joint investigation by the Toronto Police and authorities in Australia.
“This is something that has put a lot of pressure on her and her family,” said Det. Kyriacou. “She is at the point where she is very fearful for her safety.”
He said Ms. Ballingall does not want to talk publicly about the case and is trying to live a normal, private life.
If the case proceeds to trial, Det. Kyriacou hopes her evidence can be given using technology so she doesn’t have to leave Canada.
It is not known when the new trial will be heard.
Last summer, Judge Susan Wakeling ruled the Magistrates Court did not have the jurisdiction to hear the case because the effect of the alleged criminal conduct was felt entirely outside of Australia, in Canada.
In overturning that decision last week, Justice Gillard said the court had jurisdiction in the case because there was a substantial enough link between commission of the alleged offence and Australia.
Susheel Gupta, a Canadian federal prosecutor who specializes in cybercrime, said the judge’s ruling is important because it takes a strong stand on technological crime and addresses the fact criminals can act outside their own borders.
He said courts in Canada would likely have heard the case if the situation had been reversed, and the stalker had been a Canadian.
In his judgment, Justice Gillard said it was imperative to bring the law in line with technological change.
“Movement between countries is much greater now than in the past and subject to less restrictions. Technology has reached the point where communications can be made around the world in less than a second,” he said. “The law must move with these changes.”