Police liable for negligent investigations, top court says

A wrongly convicted Ontario man who established a legal principle for much of Canada but failed to win damages from police is asking the province to compensate him voluntarily for 20 months he spent in jail.

Wrongfully convicted man seeks compensation

A wrongly convicted Ontario man who established a legal principle for much of Canada but failed to win damages from police is asking the province to compensate him voluntarily for his 1995 arrest and 20 months he spent in jail.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada dismissed an appeal by Jason Hill,who sued Hamilton police, claiming they acted maliciously and negligently in fingering him for a series of bank robberies.

In its 6-3 ruling, however, the court said police can be sued for negligent investigations. That ruling upholds the law already in place in Ontario and Quebec, but will mean a change for the rest of the country.

"The police are not immune from liability under the law of negligence and the tort of negligent investigation exists in Canada," Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin wrote in the ruling. "Police officers owe a duty of care to suspects."

Unfortunately for Hill, the top court upheld lower-court judgments that said the Hamilton investigation did not cross the line.

"In this case, the police officers' conduct, considered in light of police practices at the time, meets the standard of a reasonable officer in similar circumstances,"the ruling said.

After the ruling, Hill's lawyers gave reporters copies of a letter they were sending to Ontario Attorney General Michael Bryant.

Noting that the Supreme Court confirmed that Hill was jailed for a crime he did not commit, they asked Bryant's ministry to negotiate voluntary compensation for Hill under what are called the Federal-Provincial Guidelines for Compensation of Wrongfully Convicted Persons.

The letter did not say how much money they sought.

One of the lawyers, Sean Dewart, told CBC News Online it would be would be "wildly premature" to suggest a dollar figure.

"First, the attorney general has to do the right thing and instruct his officials to negotiate something," he said.

There was no word from Bryant on whether he will do so.

"We are carefully reviewing the decision and it would be premature to comment or speculate on any matters before the review is complete," Brendan Crawley, senior media relations co-ordinator for the ministry, told CBC News Online.

Ruling could harm police investigations: dissenting judges

In its ruling, the Supreme Court did not describe the standard of care owed to suspects as a set of strict guidelines but as "a flexible overarching standard that covers all aspects of investigatory police work and appropriately reflects its realities."

In laying charges, the standard is informed by the legal requirement of reasonable and probable grounds to believe the suspect is guilty, the ruling said.

"It has thus been recognized that police work demands that society (including the courts) impose and enforce high standards on police conduct."

In their comments, the three dissenting judges argued that the tort of negligent investigation should not be recognized in Canada, saying it could have a negative effect on how police investigate crime because of fear of civil action.

"A private duty of care owed by the police to suspects would necessarily conflict with an officer's overarching public duty to investigate crime and apprehend offenders."

Hill said his Charter rights were violated

Hill, who eventually was acquitted, sued the Hamilton-Wentworth police, accusing some of its members of malicious prosecution, negligence and the breach of his rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Evidence against Hill had included eyewitness testimony, Crime Stoppers tips and a photo lineup that consisted of 11 Caucasian men and Hill, who is aboriginal.

After the arrest, more evidence came to light that indicated Hill was not the perpetrator of the robberies, including new Crime Stoppers tips implicating two Hispanic men, as well as two additional robberies that were committed while Hill was in custody.

While the civil trial judge described Hill's robbery conviction as "wrongful," he did not agree that police had acted maliciously and dismissed the lawsuit.

Hill challenged the ruling at the Court of Appeal for Ontario.

The Appeal Court convened a special five-judge panel to hear Hill's case, which unanimously ruled that police services in Ontario can be sued if investigations are conducted negligently.

However, only two of the judges found that the police defendants had conducted the robbery investigation below reasonable standards, and Hill's case was once again dismissed.

The Supreme Court of Canada heard Hill's appeal in November 2006.