Police Accountability Through Sentencing - April Lount
R v Doering (“Doering”) is an Ontario case in which a police officer was charged with failure to provide the necessaries of life and criminal negligence causing death. This case provides an example of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s (“the ONSC”) approach when dealing with police-involved fatalities and duty of care. Activist groups such as Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police have brought attention to how the judicial system treats police differently, and this has subsequently developed into an international discourse surrounding police use of force and accountability. While police use of force is largely protected in Canada through provisions such as section 25 of the Criminal Code (“the Code”), the ONSC’s analysis in this instance reveals that (surprisingly) police can expect much less leniency where violence is not at issue.
The facts of Doering surround Ms. Chrisjohn and her encounter with police. Constable Doering was dispatched to a Petro Canada where Ms. Chrisjohn was high on methamphetamine. Even though Ms. Chrisjohn had previously been acting erratically, when he first engaged her to put her in the back of the police vehicle, Constable Doering’s testimony stated that she was “cooperative”. Shortly afterwards, while the car was still parked, Ms. Chrisjohn started exhibiting “erratic and delusional behaviour”. In cross-examination, he “agreed that [at this point] her consciousness level, if 10 is full alert and awake, was a 4”. Having ample exposure to people high on crystal meth, this did not seem unusual to him. Constable Doering also had an exchange with a paramedic on site and they both came to a consensus that she would not be assessed on site because of her behaviour, and if he were to take her to hospital “she would just sit there for hours while being monitored.” This bolstered his belief that it would be safe to take her straight into custody.
Things changed when Constable Doering then began driving to transfer Ms. Chrisjohn over to officers of the Ontario Provincial Police (“the OPP”). “By the time they reached the meeting place, Ms. Chrisjohn was unable to speak, unable to sit up for any period of time, and unable to respond to commands.” This was approximately 45 minutes after leaving Petro Canada and one of the OPP officers described her as “lying on the rear seat of the cruiser, moaning and shaking”. What’s more, Constable Doering indicated to the OPP officers during the transfer that she had been assessed by Emergency Medical Services (“EMS”) and she had been in the same condition throughout. While the OPP officers called for EMS soon after, medical intervention was too late and she died from “a toxic level of methamphetamine resulting in a heart attack”.
The Significance of the Accused’s State of Mind
While the traditional criminal offence requires proof of subjective mens rea, negligence offences differ from this standard. In penal negligence cases, “the test for liability is a modified objective standard”, asking whether a reasonably prudent person, with the same knowledge of the situation, “would have appreciated the risks associated with the act or failure to act”. The law in this scenario is therefore not concerned with what was actually going on in the person’s mind; rather, a court uses a comparative legal technique that engages the concept of the reasonable person. This is the objective standard for liability validated in R v Creighton, and it is on this basis that a court establishes the conviction for both failure to provide the necessaries of life and criminal negligence causing death.