Canada: Can Police Officers Who Fail to Take a Complaint Seriously be Held Responsible? The Court Rules

Jocelyn Hotte, a police officer and sniper with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, shot his ex-wife, Lucie Gélinas, while she was driving a car with three other people in it. The three passengers were seriously injured in the shooting. A few days earlier, Ms. Gélinas told the police that she had received death threats from her ex-husband, but the officers concluded that her complaint was unfounded. Unfortunately, the tragic events of a few days later proved them wrong.

The passengers in the car driven by Ms. Gélinas sued City of Laval, the police officers' employer, for damages, alleging that the officers were at fault, given that they had dismissed Ms. Gélinas' complaint without reasonable cause. Even though the death threats uttered by Jocelyn Hotte had not been directed at them, the three passengers submitted that if the police officers had taken Ms. Gélinas' complaint seriously, the injuries they had sustained could have been avoided. In the spring, the Superior Court agreed with them.1

The Facts

The evidence submitted at trial showed that Ms. Gélinas first made a 911 call to Laval police and told the dispatcher of the threats she had received from her ex-husband. She even repeated the words he had uttered: "[TRANSLATION] Your father was shot. This is your last chance." At the dispatcher's suggestion, two patrol officers went to Ms. Gélinas' home a few hours later. She told them about the threats she had received from her ex-husband and that he was extremely jealous. At the hearing, however, the police officers testified instead that Ms. Gélinas had calmly told them about her fear and had specified that she did not want to file a complaint even though she believed that she had received death threats from her ex-husband. At the end of their meeting, Ms. Gélinas apparently confided to them: "[TRANSLATION] I wanted you to know about it in case something happens to me." The officers concluded that Ms. Gélinas was not in any danger, wrote "unfounded" on their report, and closed the case with no further action or checks on their part. In any event, they believed the facts Ms. Gélinas had brought to their attention were simply not death threats within the meaning of the Criminal Code.

The Superior Court, however, had a different opinion. It held that, based on the analysis of the facts Ms. Gélinas had reported, the officers could not write  "unfounded" on their report. Moreover, this had serious consequences because it prevented the report from being reviewed by the officers' supervisor, who might well have seen things in a different light and ordered concrete actions with respect to Jocelyn Hotte. The Court also went to the trouble of pointing out that the two officers who had gone to Ms. Gélinas' house had demonstrated insufficient knowledge of the relevant provisions of the Criminal Code, which possibly explains, at least in part, their incorrect assessment of the situation with which Ms. Gélinas was faced. In short, the Court concluded that the officers had clearly not fulfilled their obligation of means.

The Court was further of the opinion that the fate of officer Hotte's ex-wife and his other three victims could have most probably been avoided had the officers chosen instead to use the powers bestowed upon them in this type of situation. More specifically, in accordance with the City of Laval and provincial policies in matters of spousal abuse, they could have referred the matter to the courts, even if Ms. Gélinas had not filed a formal complaint. They could have also invoked Article 117 of the Criminal Code in order to search for their colleague Jocelyn Hotte's service weapon. Furthermore, Mr. Hotte's superiors at the Royal Canadian Mounted Police could have required Mr. Hotte to surrender his service weapon had they been notified by their City of Laval colleagues of the threats he had uttered.

The Court was thus of the opinion that there was a causal relation between the police officers' fault and the injuries sustained by the passengers of the car driven by Jocelyn Hotte's ex-wife. In fact, the Court was of the opinion that the fatal chase of Jocelyn was a logical consequence of the police officers' failure to take Ms. Gélinas' complaint seriously. The Court pointed out that Jocelyn Hotte had also gone to the trouble of reminding his ex-wife that her father had been shot. There was thus a clear relation between his threats and the use of a firearm, that is, the service weapon he had at his disposal as a police officer. The evidence further indicates that the police officers had been made aware that Jocelyn Hotte had shown inappropriate behaviour not only with his ex-wife, but also towards the men surrounding her, whose telephone numbers he had tried to obtain. According to the Court, it was to be expected that Jocelyn Hotte would use a weapon to make good on his threats, regardless whether his wife was alone or with other people. Anyone in her company was therefore at risk.

What We Need to Remember from This Judgment

When a Court is asked to hear a case against police officers, it will analyze their responsibility based on the "reasonable police officer in the same circumstances" test. Of course, police officers are neither infallible nor perfect. Moreover, they are not bound by an obligation of result, but simply by one of means. They must, however, use the means at their disposal in compliance with the law and the relevant policies. In the Jocelyn Hotte case, the Court concluded that the two officers who had responded to the victim's call had not fulfilled their obligation of means. One must therefore remember from this decision that a police officer's failure to act reasonably in light of the circumstances is sufficient to hold the officer civilly responsible if a causal relation can be established between the officer's fault and the prejudice suffered by a citizen who contacts the officer to tell him or her about a situation that jeopardizes his or her security.

The author wishes to thank Ms. Sophie Brochu, articling student, for her help in preparing this bulletin.

Footnote

1. Mainville c. Ville de Laval, 2010 QCCS-1319.

About Ogilvy Renault

Ogilvy Renault LLP is a full-service law firm with close to 450 lawyers and patent and trade-mark agents practicing in the areas of business, litigation, intellectual property, and employment and labour. Ogilvy Renault has offices in Montréal, Ottawa, Québec, Toronto, and London (England), and serves some of the largest and most successful corporations in Canada and in more than 120 countries worldwide. Find out more at www.ogilvyrenault.com.

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