Police can be sued over wrongful arrests and convictions: top court
Posted By Jim Brown
Posted 1 day ago Updated 1 day ago
Police can be sued for negligence over wrongful arrests and convictions, the Supreme Court has ruled, dismissing warnings that allowing such lawsuits will have a "chilling effect" on law enforcement.
But the resounding declaration of legal principle rang hollow Thursday for Jason George Hill, who brought the case to the high court after being exonerated on a bank robbery charge that cost him 20 months behind bars.
Hill, of Hamilton, was the victim of an "unfortunate series of events," wrote Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, but the actions of Hamilton-Wentworth regional police didn't amount to negligence.
The nine judges were unanimous in ruling against Hill based on the facts of his case. They split 6-3, however, on the broader issue of whether the public should be able to sue at all in such circumstances.
McLachlin, writing for the majority, concluded that people can sue police forces and individual officers under common-law tests of negligence.
The finding could have a major impact in future because it's easier to prove negligence than it is to prove malicious prosecution, the main alternative available to the public.
McLachlin said police "owe a duty of care" to suspects, and that officers' conduct "should be measured against the standard of how a reasonable officer in like circumstances would have acted."
"The existing remedies for wrongful conviction are incomplete and may leave a victim of negligent police investigation without legal recourse. To deny a remedy (on grounds of negligence) is, quite literally, to deny justice."
The Ontario and federal governments, backed by the national associations representing police chiefs and rank-and-file officers, contended that allowing actions for negligence would have a "chilling effect" on law enforcement and would spark a rash of spurious lawsuits.
McLachlin rejected both arguments. The notion of a chill on police activity is mere "speculation" unsupported by hard evidence, she said, while the legal system contains enough safeguards to deter any "glut of jailhouse lawsuits" mounted on spurious grounds.
The chief justice also took pains to point out that not every mistake made by police will automatically make them liable for damages.