When two police officers showed up Jan. 24 at Donnelly's Ottawa Ford, Ken Scott-Humphry, a newly employed car salesman, had no idea they were coming for him. Later, because his colleagues were looking on, Scott-Humphry, 49, thanked the officers for not using handcuffs when they took him away.
"I must be the only person ever to have gone to jail for posting a notice on Free-Net", he says, still bewildered over an ordeal which included three weeks in jail and the loss of his job.
A few days earlier, he had posted a question through National Capital Free-Net, a computer network offering discussion groups on issues from poetry to politics. Scott-Humphry e-mailed his message to a discussion group for antique gun collectors who don costumes on weekends and fire old-fashioned black powder weapons. His question asked where to buy a particular kind of gun powder and bullets.
The arresting officers told Scott-Humphry only that his parole had been suspended. Two years ago, the former OC Transpo bus driver was convicted of conspiracy to import hashish into Canada.
The RCMP, he was told the next day, saw his query about gun powder and, because the message mentioned a gun show in Syracuse, mistakenly inferred that Scott-Humphry had visited the United States, a parole violation.
"I stayed awake all night wondering what have I done?" he said, recalling the first night in jail. "When they finally told me it was because of what I had written to the (computer group), it was like I had been knocked into left field." Waiting for him when he got out of jail three weeks later was a letter of dismissal from his employer.
Scott-Humphry bought the computer as a Christmas gift to himself. "It's wonderful. I live here alone and it can get pretty lonely, so I talk to people all over the world on the computer. I talk to a fellow in South Africa and another in Germany."
He is a trained pilot and normally spends his computer time participating in a group that discusses aviation. He posted the question to the gun-enthusiast group on behalf of his best friend, a collector of old weapons.
"I figured it was all my fault Ken got into trouble", said the friend, a 62-year-old retired bus driver who did not want to be identified because, as a gun collector, he worries his home would be targeted by thieves. A few days after the arrest, two parole officers showed up at the friend's house to verify Scott-Humphry's story.
The friend showed them his musket and confirmed it was he, not Scott-Humphry, who was at the Syracuse gun show.
"(The parole officers) said there's definitely been a mistake", said the friend. "It's a damn shame this happened for a stupid reason like that."
Rosemary O'Brien, a local spokesperson for Correctional Services, says that while Scott-Humphry was detained for three weeks, an inquiry into an alleged parole violation is allowed to take up to a month.
"It's unfortunate if he lost his job, but it started by his own hand", she said. "(The investigation) isn't done in half a day. It takes time to make all the necessary inquiries." O'Brien would not confirm if it was the RCMP who alerted her department to Scott-Humphry's computer message.
Jeffrey Shallit is vice-president of Electronic Frontier Canada, a civil liberties and cyberspace group that is concerned about the protection of privacy in the electronic form.
It is becoming increasingly common for police to glean information from computer networks, he says, and they are perfectly entitled to do so.
It's when police start intercepting private electronic messages that serious concerns arise.
"If you post a message to a public board, you put it out for all to see, much as you would take out advertising in a local paper, and it's completely appropriate that police might monitor those messages."
"If, on the other hand, it's private electronic mail sent from one party to another . . . and that is intercepted by police without a warrant, that's a completely different matter and a very, very serious invasion of privacy."
In this case, Shallit says Scott-Humphry appears to have posted information publicly.
Sgt. Craig Hannaford of the RCMP technological crimes section said there's no program to systematically monitor electronic discussion groups, although the RCMP is aware of certain groups such as those that exchange information about how to commit crimes. He said he had never heard of the gun hobby group that got Scott-Humphry into trouble.
Scott-Humphry's lawyer suggested Correctional Services was over-zealous. "They might have had another option, to speak with him first. Their decision to suspend his parole has had a dramatic effect on his life", said Sharon Rosenberg.
Scott-Humphry, however, said his parole officer has promised to speak to his boss. And, yes, he will continue to cruise the information highway. So far, he's received eight responses to his question about gun powder.