Last month, prosecutors dropped charges of impaired driving against Stacey Snider four days into her trial.

On Aug. 14, 2012, the then 36-year-old West Island resident was involved in an accident with a city bus in Dorval. Snider’s mother, Janet Stoddard Snider, and the bus’s driver, Sylvain Ferland, were killed in the accident.

She was charged with impaired driving in January 2013 and later filed a motion to have a blood sample taken the night of the accident while she was unconscious as well as the toxicology report on that sample — key evidence that found her blood alcohol level was over the legal limit — excluded, because, her lawyer argued, it was obtained illegally. Snider’s lawyer, Pierre Joyal, said police violated Section 8 of Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms which protects a person’s “right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.” On May 22, Quebec Court Judge Thierry Nadon agreed. The prosecution withdrew charges that day.

While the Crown continues to weigh whether it will appeal the decision, Paul Cherry examines five key factors that influenced the ruling.

1. How the police learned Snider had alcohol in her circulatory system

Following the accident, two uniformed members of the Montreal police — Matthew Boucher and Patrice Church — escorted Snider as she was taken by ambulance to the Montreal General Hospital. The officers stayed close to Snider, who was unconscious and in critical condition, for a period of four hours while she was treated by doctors. During that time, Amanda Cabana, an emergency-room coordinator, revealed to them that there was alcohol in Snider’s system.

Armed with that information, the investigator in charge of the case requested the search warrant, and another court order used to seize Snider’s blood samples, the toxicology results and her medical file.

Boucher testified that before being informed of the result his role was to accompany Snider to the hospital as part of Montreal police standard procedure. He said his role was to maintain a link between the scene of the accident and the injured person. Any information would have been relayed to the investigator or, if Snider died, to a coroner.

Montreal police can request a breathalyzer test or a blood sample if they smell alcohol, or if someone says they saw the person driving erratically. In Snider’s case, police had no reason to suspect she was drunk while behind the wheel of her BMW. No one had smelled alcohol on her after the crash, and no one stepped forward to say whether she had been driving erratically before it happened.

Snider was treated in two of three emergency rooms at the hospital — a very small trauma room and a larger room with nine beds afterwards. Cabana testified that police officers are not allowed in either room because their limited space offers little chance of maintaining confidentiality while staff are treating patients. Several staffers at the hospital had complained about this situation in the past but, as was mentioned during the trial, the problem persists.

2. Differing versions of how the information was revealed

In court, Nadon heard very different versions of how the police learned Snider had alcohol in her system. Boucher testified that while he was near a counter in the emergency room with nine beds Cabana offered him the information willingly. Boucher testified he did not recall asking Cabana any questions.

“Cabana remembers the event a little differently. While she was taking care of (Snider) she heard a doctor or someone else behind her say ‘Oh my God she was drunk or she was drinking’,” Nadon noted in his decision. Cabana testified she left the room to see another coordinator to confirm whether Snider was one of the drivers in the accident. When she returned she uttered “Oh, she was drinking.” She said she then noticed a police officer was looking toward her and that he asked who she was referring to. Cabana then pointed to Snider. Cabana testified the officer then stated: “You just made my job more difficult or harder.” Frustrated with the situation, Cabana asked the officer to leave or talk to the doctor in charge. At that point the officer left.

Both Boucher and Church testified they were aware of the confidentiality issues involved at the time and said neither prompted Cabana for the information. Boucher said that if anyone violated professional secrets it was Cabana. Church admitted that he had asked a series of questions to hospital staff but said they were only in reference to Snider’s condition.

“(When) confronted with a note (recorded) at 10:42 p.m. on page 30 of (Snider’s) medical report showing that the officers asked several questions about her blood-alcohol level the officers replied that they had no memory of that,” Nadon wrote in his decision.

“The court takes away the following. The police officers, because of their privileged position in a space reserved for hospital staff, heard Cabana say that the accused had been drinking. Cabana pointed to the accused and the police officers asked questions and obtained a response about her blood-alcohol level that turned out to be erroneous.”

Boucher was told, or overheard, that Snider’s blood-alcohol level was 24.8 millimoles and misunderstood that measurement to mean she had a .248 blood-alcohol level, which would have been three times over the limit of 0.08 grams of alcohol per 100 millilitres of blood.

At that point, Nadon said in his decision, Boucher changed caps and became an investigator.

3. How Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms protected Snider

The question Nadon was left to address was: should a reasonable, well-informed person placed in the same situation as Snider expect to have a right to privacy?

The territorial aspect of the charter’s protection includes a person’s residence, a hotel room, and the inside of their car. The personal aspect includes a person’s body, DNA, bodily fluids and other items. The third aspect covers personal information. Nadon determined the police officers violated all three aspects of Snider’s rights.

“The incidence of the violation was significant. This favours the exclusion of the evidence,” Nadon wrote.

“Constable Boucher knew that medical information is confidential and was aware of its importance. When questioned on the necessity of his presence in proximity to (Snider) for four hours, Boucher replied that it was procedure and that he was curious. If the victim died he had to inform other (police officers on the case). He had to inform them on the extent of her injuries. Despite everything, he was aware of being within the personal life of the accused. Personally, he hopes he would never find himself in her situation.”

Nadon wrote that he understood how a police officer can have a duty to escort a person who has been in a car accident to the hospital.

“However, in this instance, this role of protector was exercised with zeal and misplaced curiosity. (Snider) wasn’t detained, suspected or being investigated. She was the victim of an accident and taken under the care of health care professionals who judged her to be in critical condition. She did not represent a danger to herself or other people. Was it necessary or even appropriate for constables Boucher and Church to remain so close, and for such a long time, with the goal of keeping a link to the scene of the accident? Most certainly, the answer is no.”

4. Jurisprudence

Nadon wrote that Canadian courts have been critical of police presence in emergency rooms in similar situations for the past three decades.

He specifically made reference to a 1994 Supreme Court of Canada decision involving an Ontario man named Nicola Colarusso who, in 1986, caused two accidents within minutes of each other while driving impaired. A person died in the second accident.

Colarusso was taken to a hospital before a breathalyzer test could be conducted and he agreed that hospital staff could take samples of his blood and urine samples for medical purposes only. The samples were turned over to a coroner investigating the fatality and somehow ended up in the hands of police.

In its decision the Supreme Court criticized how the police presence in the hospital allowed them to learn that Colarusso allowed the samples to be taken. In its ruling the court wrote: “The presence of the police officer in the emergency room in such circumstances can only serve to undermine the physician-patient relationship, as the accused would likely interpret these facts as a sign that the medical staff was operating in conjunction with the police investigation.”

5. Rights versus the gravity of the alleged crime

However, in Colarusso’s case the Supreme Court also determined his conduct was so appalling it outweighed his constitutional right and dismissed his appeal of having been convicted of impaired driving causing bodily harm.

Near the end of his decision Nadon considered this question as well and determined the opposite — that the alleged crime did not outweigh how Snider’s right was violated.

For this part of his decision he quoted from a different Supreme Court decision which read: “The short-term public clamour for a conviction in a particular case must not deafen the judge to the longer-term repute of the administration of justice. Moreover, while the public has a heightened interest in seeing a determination on the merits where the offence charged is serious, it also has a vital interest in having a justice system that is above reproach, particularly where the penal stakes for the accused are high.”

Source: Montreal Gazette


Last updated on: 2015-06-30 | Link to this post