Hamilton

OPP officer was trying to protect public from 'dangerous person' before Binbrook crash: lawyer

The lawyer representing an OPP officer who has pleaded guilty to mischief endangering life argues she was acting in good faith when she followed a robbery suspect at high speed, leading to a crash.

Lauren Cheeseman pleaded guilty to mischief endangering life in connection with 2015 crash

The lawyer for Const. Lauren Cheeseman says she was acting in "good faith" when she followed a robbery suspect in December 2015, leading to a crash. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

An OPP officer was trying to protect the public from a "very dangerous person" when she followed a bank robbery suspect at high speed, leading to 2015 car crash, her lawyer argued Wednesday. 

Defence lawyer David Butt said Lauren Cheeseman, who has pleaded guilty to mischief endangering life, was acting in good faith when she hit speeds of 150 km/h and higher in the lead-up to the Binbrook collision that left a man with a broken collarbone.

"When you're pursuing a very dangerous person you're engaged in protecting the public and sometimes you have to make very difficult decisions about how fast you will drive," he said outside court.

"I totally understand that 150 and 170 [km/h] can be a shock to the general public but we do have to empower our law enforcement officials to act quickly when emergency situations require it."

Butt added OPP officers like Cheeseman are trained to drive at high speeds and that she stayed in contact with her communications centre, so she should receive an absolute discharge.

Robbery suspect arrested after crash

Cheeseman pleaded guilty after a 2017 investigation by Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU) into the collision that happened after she started tailing a 29-year-old suspect in December 2015.

The pursuit brought them to Binbrook where the SIU says police were investigating a fatal collision involving a pedestrian and had closed the road.

That's when the vehicle that was being followed by the officer crashed into another vehicle which had been turned around by the road closure, according to the SIU.

A 58-year-old man who was driving and a 17-year-old girl were both taken to hospital after the crash, with the driver suffering a broken collarbone.

The SIU says the robbery suspect was arrested at the scene. 

Following the investigation, the OPP officer was charged with criminal negligence causing bodily harm and dangerous driving causing bodily harm.

Instead, she pleaded guilty in January to a lesser charge of mischief endangering life.

Officer says she wants people to feel safe

Cheeseman was in court for the appearance, along with her parents and other supporters who filled the first row.

Wearing a dark suit and floral blouse, she stood up to address the court.

"I have lived my life dedicated to bettering the lives and care for the wellbeing of others," she said, reading a statement through tears.

I have lived my life dedicated to bettering the lives and care for the wellbeing of others.-Lauren Cheeseman, OPP

The officer mentioned that before becoming a member of the OPP, she served as a soldier who was willing to lay down her life for her country.

"I wish nothing more than for the people in these communities to feel safe, supported and cared for, no different than I'd want for my own family," she said, before sitting down.

Butt described his client as "extremely upset," adding the stress from the criminal proceeding has been "enormous."

Butt says client was paying attention to safety

He took over the case before the Ontario Court of Justice from lawyer Jimmy Lee in March after there was a "loss in confidence" between Lee and his client.

Butt described the opportunity as a "rare second chance" where he tried to add to what Lee had already argued.

He read through a transcript of communications between Cheeseman and the OPP communications centre during the pursuit, saying she was consistently telling the sergeant she was speaking with by radio how fast she was going, including speeds above 130 km/h.

Defence lawyer David Butt speaks with reporters outside court on May 15, 2019. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

Instead of telling her to slow down, the lawyer said, she received a response of "10-4" — confirmation she had been heard.

Butt also pointed out Cheeseman slowed down to about 118 km/h when encountering an intersection, something he cited as evidence she was paying attention to safety.

Judge Tony Leitch referred to the same transcript and asked about specific references where the sergeant in the communications centre cautioned Cheeseman not to push it to a high rate of speed.

He also noted that comparing the transcripts to a map and data points of speed during the pursuit showed at one point she was travelling driving around 150 km/h in a residential area with plenty of hidden driveways.

"She made choices that took it over the line certainly, but they were not made out of recklessness or disregard for what she was told," said Butt, adding that's why Cheeseman plead guilty.

Crown wants conviction and $3K fine

Cheeseman is now working for the OPP as a detective in a different part of the province, the lawyer said, adding in court that she "didn't wilt but rather improved" despite the stress.

Crown prosecutor Katie Doherty responded to Butt's comments saying even when Cheeseman slowed down for the intersection in question she was still doing almost double the speed limit.

"She knows people won't see her coming," the lawyer said.

The Crown is asking for a conviction and a $3,000 fine, which would leave Cheeseman with a criminal record, something Doherty said is important for deterrence.

The case will return to court on June 18 when justice Leitch is expected to make his decision.