Nova Scotia

Cape Breton police cleared in Joneil Hanna fatal crash investigation

Nova Scotia’s Police Review Board has determined that Cape Breton Regional Police Service made no error in their investigation of a 2018 crash that claimed the life of Joneil Hannah, 17.

Victim's father complained to police board that force failed to properly investigate incident

Joneil Hanna is shown with his baby daughter. (Gofundme)

Nova Scotia's Police Review Board has determined the Cape Breton Regional Police Service made no error in their investigation of a crash that claimed the life of Joneil Hanna, 17, who was hit and killed while walking along the side of a road after attending a graduation party.

Hanna's father, John Parr, had lodged a complaint with the board, arguing the force had failed to properly investigate the incident.

"We emphasize that it is not for this Board to determine the cause of this tragic accident, nor to assign criminal or civil culpability," the board said in a decision released Wednesday, rejecting Parr's appeal.

"Rather, our mandate is to consider whether the CBRPS acted reasonably in initially responding to the party, in their subsequent actions at the accident scene, and finally, in their followup investigations."

Parr had alleged police failed to shut down the party, even though they knew there was underage drinking; should not have allowed Hayden Laffin, the driver of the vehicle that struck Hanna, to leave the crash scene without giving a statement; and that witnesses with vital information were not considered in the laying of charges.

Hanna was struck as he walked along the side of a rural road near Leitches Creek, N.S., on the evening of June 9, 2018. He and Laffin had attended a high school graduation party at a large rural property in the area.

Hayden Laffin is shown entering Sydney provincial court in 2019. (Norma Jean MacPhee/CBC)

Evidence presented to the board during a hearing in September determined that hundreds attended the party, including many that hadn't been invited. The board also noted that many at the party became intoxicated.

When police arrived on the scene of the crash that night, they found Hanna on the side of the road. He had left the party a few minutes earlier and been struck by Laffin's car. He died as a result of his injuries.

As a result of Parr's complaint about Cape Breton Regional Police's handling of the investigation, officers from Halifax Regional Police were asked to take another look. The Halifax officers determined the accident investigation was reasonable.

The only people to testify before the board were Cape Breton police officers. There were some statements from civilians introduced, but the board noted it could make limited use of those statements because the witnesses were not cross-examined.

'Futile' to ticket underage drinkers

Police were first called to the party around 1 a.m. for an anonymous complaint about the size of the crowd. Some time later, they were called back to the party by the homeowner who was asking for police help to shut it down. One of the responding officers told the homeowner to shut off the music and the disco ball. She then told the crowd that the party was over.

"Given the number of participants," the board wrote in its decision, "it would have been futile to attempt to identify and ticket possible underage drinkers."

Evidence presented to the board described a somewhat chaotic scene that night with additional parties in the area and incidents of intoxication, including one of alcohol poisoning.

It was around this time that Laffin arrived at the party. He told officers he was bringing his girlfriend back to retrieve her cellphone. A constable who testified said Hayden appeared sober and did not smell of alcohol when the officer leaned into the car to talk to him. Laffin left shortly after agreeing to transport a partier who was highly intoxicated.

'I think he's dead'

While police were continuing to try to shut the party down, they received a call that someone had been injured nearby. A responding officer came across four distraught young people who were sobbing and screaming, "I think he's dead".

Officers who spoke to Laffin that night said they did not smell alcohol or notice any signs of impairment. They concluded that because of that, they had no grounds to make a breathalyzer demand.

Witnesses described Laffin as distraught, upset and cold. He told police he could not drive. His vehicle was impounded. He was allowed to leave the area as a passenger in someone else's vehicle.

The board determined that police actions were reasonable that night because they were seriously out-numbered by partiers and any attempt to ticket underage drinkers could have caused a panic. Their priority was to keep people safe and off the roads.

The board also found that police acted reasonably when they allowed Laffin to leave the scene, noting that he was still too distraught to provide a statement when he came to the police station later that morning.

Laffin was later charged with attempting to obstruct justice after Hanna's death, but the prosecutor handling the case dropped the charge after concluding there was there was no reasonable prospect for conviction.

The board also disputed the allegation that police failed to interview witnesses with vital information.

"[T]he Board hopes that this public review of the matter will help provide some clarity to the family and to members of the public."