A Supreme Court judge said Yellowknife RCMP failed to “take even the most basic of steps” to investigate a woman’s claim she was assaulted by her boyfriend in a drunken fight in a downtown hotel room.
The man was eventually charged with assault, mischief, extortion, and sexual assault related to complaints made by the woman about incidents that happened in 2017.
On Friday, he was cleared of all charges.
“It does a disservice to victims of violence when police fail to take even the most basic of steps to investigate their allegations,” Justice Shannon Smallwood said on Friday afternoon, delivering her verdict after a three-day trial.
“Interviewing potential witnesses and taking photographs should be standard practice and not some extraordinary steps.
“When victims of violence say they are reluctant to come forward because they are afraid that police will not do anything, the investigation in this case gives credence to that belief.”
Smallwood stopped short of saying police failings alone resulted in her finding the man not guilty, but she said a better investigation would have “answered some of the questions that caused me uncertainty regarding the allegations.”
The judge said an accused person can be found guilty even where no independent evidence supports a complainant’s story. There is no legal requirement that there be independent corroboration of evidence.
“That being said, it is unfortunate that very little was done to investigate these allegations,” she said.
The trial ran from September 29 to October 1 and saw the Crown call only two witnesses – the alleged victim and a friend who saw her injuries. The accused man testified in his own defence.
A publication ban protects the woman’s identity. The man, found not guilty, is not named in this report.
Verdict rested on credibility
The charges stemmed from three incidents in 2017.
In June that year, the couple stayed at the downtown Quality Inn for three nights. On the last night, both being drunk, they fought in the hotel room – offering differing accounts of the incident in court.
“Something obviously happened in that hotel room, and I expect the truth is somewhere between the two versions,” said Smallwood, adding she was left with a reasonable doubt about the woman’s version of events.
The second incident, which resulted in an extortion charge, concerned a photo the man sent to the woman when their relationship was struggling.
It was a selfie of him showing the woman in bed in the background, taken in the woman’s house during a sleepover. The woman’s face could not be seen and there was no nudity.
The woman claimed the photo was accompanied with a threat it would be sent to her family and posted on social media if she did not return to the relationship. The man denied a threat was made and said he sent the photo simply as a friendly gesture.
Smallwood said nothing in the photo would cause “a casual observer” to conclude the “dissemination” of the image would be embarrassing for the woman.
The judge said the issue at hand was, if a threat was made, whether the woman would find it problematic for others to see the photo.
The man acknowledged sending the photo – it was the last “silly photo of them” he had, he testified – but denied it was part of a threat. The judge determined the man’s stated ambivalence toward the relationship’s end caused her to believe he would not have threatened the woman to stay with him.
The sexual assault charge alleged the man in April 2017 committed an unwanted act on the woman as she slept. She noticed what was happening when she woke up, she testified. The man denied he was even with her that morning.
The judge noted the two versions of events on that day offered under oath were quite different. With no evidence other that the testimony offered by the accused and the woman, the judge said, she found the man’s “straightforward and plausible” testimony left her uncertain of what had occurred – raising a reasonable doubt and forcing her to find him not guilty.
Smallwood said the trial outcome hinged on the credibility of the man and woman, and there were problems with the stories told by both.
It is obvious the pair “have very negative views of each other today,” said the judge.
As the decision was being read, the woman cried in the back row of the large courtroom in the company of a Crown witness coordinator. She left the room twice as details of events were recounted.
This is only the latest case in which Smallwood has been critical of police work.
In June, a major drug-trafficking case fell apart when she ruled RCMP did not properly obtain a search warrant for a hotel room where they found just under 200 grams of crack cocaine.