A CBC News investigation has revealed officials with the Department of Justice and Sheriff’s Services took steps to keep details of a violent April 2012 sheriff van crash, in which inmates were seriously injured, from public scrutiny.
In a series of department emails in the days following the April 23, 2012 crash, the then head of Sheriff Services states “media is on the story now” and orders employees to recall or destroy any emailed or hard-copy photos of the crumpled van. She wrote to a colleague, “I’m trying to put the fear of God into every officer that received the photos.”
'I’m trying to put the fear of God into every officer that received the photos.' - Mary Louise Smith, Director of Sheriff Services
That effort to keep records of the crash confidential was only one step in a series of non-transparent decisions.
One or more of the inmates was not wearing a seatbelt when the van slid off an icy northern highway and rolled at least three times over a steep embankment. Two inmates claim in lawsuits they’ve now filed against the province that they suffered injuries including cracked vertebrae, shattered ribs and a fractured shoulder blade.
On the day of the crash the Department of Justice’s media relations officer Dave MacLean emails Smith and suggests the department issue a news release. In the note MacLean says he thinks the crash will be in the public domain anyway so “why not get ahead of it and control the message.”
Smith replies “I’m not saying don’t do it… I’m saying I’m not sure and we should tread cautiously.”
The next day another communications staffer states the decision has been made not to inform the public: “Dave and I discussed this earlier today and we don’t think there is any need to do a release.”
Later CBC News learned of the crash independently and began to make inquiries. Department officials initially shared some details: that there had been an accident, where, how many were involved, how many inmates were still in hospital, that seatbelts were available to passengers. But after that, the information dried up.
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What CBC News was really after at that point was the government's policy on seat-belting prisoners.
In October 2012 CBC News submitted a request under the New Brunswick Right to Information Act for:
- All records concerning this accident and the subsequent investigation (including the extent and nature of the injuries).
- A record of the procedures to be followed regarding the seat-belting of detainees while being transported (before and after the accident).
- Records of the policy regarding transportation of detainees during weather events (before and after the accident).
- Records of exchanges within the two departments surrounding communications with the media in the weeks following the accident.
The response came back six months later –a blanket refusal. The government said because it was being sued no documents could be released.
“I think it’s ridiculous”
Sean Moreman is CBC’s media lawyer. He’s handled right-to-information challenges for journalists across the country and coordinated the challenge in this case. He says any relevant documents would come out in a trial anyway.
“In the normal course of litigation, all parties have to share the documents with one another and I understand here that two of the detainees are suing the province so if they don’t already have the documents they will be getting them eventually,” said Moreman
After the RTI request was rejected, CBC News challenged that decision with an appeal to the Court of Queen’s Bench.
Justice Ray French insisted the province did not have the right to claim that every single document related to a file is off-limits. He noted the justice department’s list of documents being withheld even included an email sent to the CBC. French ordered provincial lawyers to bring the records to court and explain, one-by-one, the legal grounds on which each would be withheld. The province then conceded, handing the CBC News more than 200 pages of correspondence and reports.
Not included in information turned over are policies on seatbelting or on transporting detainees in inclement weather. A justice department employee had earlier said on the witness stand that she couldn’t find any such policies among in the department's files.
CBC also asked the nine other provinces for their policies on seat-belting of prisoners and transportation during weather events. All responded within one week.
When CBC News asked Justice Minister Troy Lifford for an interview, he declined. The department said in an email to CBC News: “As you may be aware, there are legal proceedings currently underway regarding this incident. It would be inappropriate for the Minister to comment while this remains before the courts.”
The province has said in its defence in the civil litigation that “It was reasonable, in the circumstances prevailing at the time, to operate the vehicle on the highway in order to transport the prisoners.”