The Supreme Court of Canada has ended a bid by Toronto police members to sue over the actions of Crown prosecutors that the officers say damaged their reputations.
In its 8-1 decision Friday, the high court stressed the importance of prosecutorial independence and objectivity in ensuring the integrity of the justice system.
The case began when the Toronto officers were accused of assaulting two men, Randy Maharaj and Neil Singh, they had arrested for robbery in 2009.
The allegations against the officers led to Maharaj’s charges being stayed and the eventual setting aside of Singh’s conviction.
The three police officers filed a lawsuit in 2016 alleging Crown attorneys failed to put forward evidence that contradicted the assault claims.
A judge struck out their claim of negligence but allowed an allegation of misfeasance in public office — knowingly engaging in unlawful conduct — to proceed, a decision upheld by the Ontario Court of Appeal.
In their statement of claim, the police officers — Sgt. Jamie Clark, Det. Sgt. Donald Belanger and Det. Sgt. Steven Watts — alleged they had suffered harms including significant depression, emotional trauma and irreparable damage to their reputations and credibility.
They said they had been subject to ridicule and contempt, and would face this prejudice for the rest of their careers.
Canada’s top court nixed claim
The Supreme Court nixed the officers’ claim, saying that allowing police to sue the Crown for misfeasance related to prosecutors’ decision-making would undermine the integrity of the criminal justice system.
In writing for the majority, Justice Rosalie Abella said one of the critical dimensions of a prosecutor’s independence protected by immunity is, in fact, independence from the police.
“The police role is to investigate crime,” Abella wrote. “The Crown prosecutor’s role, on the other hand, is to assess whether a prosecution is in the public interest and, if so, to carry out that prosecution in accordance with the prosecutor’s duties to the administration of justice and the accused.”
The police certainly have a legitimate expectation and interest in their reputations not being unfairly impaired, Abella said.
“But the solution cannot be to make prosecutors accountable to them in a way that obliterates the independence between the police and prosecutors and is inconsistent with the Crown’s core public duties to the administration of justice and to the accused.”
However, she indicated the Crown is not completely immune from scrutiny by the courts, noting the public interest in ensuring accountability for malicious prosecution.
In the case of the Toronto police, Abella said, “the public interest argues against, not in favour of piercing prosecutorial immunity.”