'Clearly a drunk can consent' is 'a step back': Taxi users' advocate

A Manitoba taxi users' advocate says a sex assault acquittal in Halifax is frustrating and could send a message condoning sexual violence.

March 1 ruling in Halifax court acquitted taxi driver of sexual assault of intoxicated passenger

Taxi apps are already up and running in several Canadian cities, with more poised to come online. (Getty Images)

A Manitoba taxi users' advocate says a sex assault acquittal in Halifax is frustrating and could send a message condoning sexual violence.

"We're told by places like MPI to be responsible and don't drink and drive, OK, and then we use a public service like taxicabs, but we can't even feel safe in them because things like this happen," said Pamela Davis, the taxicab community complaint advocate for Manitoba's Southern Chiefs' Organization."

On March 1, Judge Gregory Lenehan acquitted a driver of sexual assault in a case where a Halifax woman was found unconscious and partly naked in the back of a cab. "Clearly a drunk can consent," he said in the decision. 

Davis's position at the organization representing more than 30 Manitoba First Nations was created in October in response to concerns about sexual harassment and discrimination in Winnipeg taxicabs. Since then, she says she's handled between 20 and 30 complaints.

She said Lenehan's ruling is "a step back."

"I hope that there is some sort of appeal process that's happening and that we can change the ruling on this case," Davis said. "Because it does send the message that it's OK for men to take advantage of women while they're under the influence."

Davis said the ruling made her angry and sad.

"I think in this case, you just kind of have to push back harder now," she said. "It seems like there's still more work to be done."

Ruling demonstrates difficulties in sexual assault convictions: U of M prof

In his ruling, Lenehan said the Crown failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the complainant, who couldn't remember the incident, had not provided consent.

Lenehan said he was "left with no alternative but to find Mr. Al-Rawi [the driver] not guilty."

But University of Manitoba law professor Karen Busby said there's another way to look at the case. Busby noted she wasn't involved in the case and could only comment on the details released to the public.

"That is to say, 'Let's look at all of the other facts and whether or not they support a finding that she would have consented in these circumstances," Busby said.

"So, the taxi driver was a stranger. There was no evidence she was looking for a sexual partner. She called a cab to take her home, she expected the driver to provide her with protection and safety. He instead drove off in the opposite direction of her home and took her to a different place in the city."

Busby said the case illustrates the difficulties in obtaining convictions in sexual assault cases.

She said one problem with cases like the one before Lenehan is that judges can sometimes rely on "outdated stereotypes" in making decisions: "So, that women lie to cover up sexual activity. That drunk women deserve what they get. That women who dress provocatively are looking for action," she said.

Busby said Lenehan's statement that "clearly a drunk can consent" is "an interesting twist" on that problem, because Lenehan was referring to evidence provided by an expert that alcohol can reduce inhibitions and increase risk-taking behaviour, leading to sexual encounters the participant later regrets.

Busby added the problems with how the justice system approaches sexual assault run "far, far deeper" than courtrooms, citing under-resourced police services, overburdened Crown attorneys and some defence counsels pushing harmful stereotypes. 

"My conclusion is the law itself, per se, isn't that bad. There's some tinkering we can do here and there. But the real problems are with how the law is applied," she said.

In a statement on Thursday, the Halifax taxi company previously employing the driver said Al-Rawi has not worked for them since he was arrested in 2015. ​

With files from CBC's Leif Larsen, Aidan Geary