An unlikely suspect

By Linda Rogers and Leslie Campbell, June 2011

A lawyer has launched a civil suit against the City and five police officers.

In his sunny home office in Cordova Bay, lawyer Rajinder Sahota admits “I always wanted to be a lawyer and fight for justice.” Growing up in Esquimalt, where he played hockey with cops from the police station across the street, he never imagined he’d one day be trying to right what he believes is an injustice done by police to him and two friends.

Yet his studies have certainly prepared him: After graduating from UVic with degrees in commerce and law, he received a Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics where he focused his studies on international economic law, human rights, and the law on the use of force. 

He subsequently worked in law offices on Wall Street and Bay Street, before returning to Victoria a few years ago. He says bigotry is more apparent here than anywhere else he has lived. “As a young brown man, I have been pulled over repeatedly in Victoria,” says Sahota.

Still, that in no way prepared him for what happened in the early hours of Monday August 9, 2010, when Sahota and two friends became involved with Victoria police officers. 

In January, on behalf of himself and those two friends, he filed a civil suit in the Supreme Court of BC against the City of Victoria and five police officers, alleging assault and battery, infliction of mental suffering, and wrongful arrest and detention.

 

Rajinder Sahota and his close friends Matthew Wenman and Inderdeep Hundal left Darcy’s Pub on Wharf Street about 1 a.m on August 9, 2010. They say they’d had three drinks each over a few hours. On leaving, they were chatting on the sidewalk. Sahota, noticing a police van parked the wrong way with the driver engaged with a hand-held device, made what he describes as a humorous yet critical comment. According to the three men’s Statement of Claim, “Sahota said approximately the following: ‘lf I was parked in this way not only would I receive a ticket, but I would be subject to a lecture, spoken to in a condescending tone, and condemned by a police officer. And if I were using a hand-held device, as [police officer] Dumont was, I would receive a ticket.” He said this in a voice loud enough for Dumont to hear.

Minutes later, according to Sahota, as the three friends emerged from the other side of Bastion Square, the same police van, having sped around the block, pulled up behind them. The officer shouted a demand for identification, a command to which Sahota and Hundal complied. Wenman, however, asked Sahota if he was legally required to show his papers. As outlined in the Statement of Claim, “Before Sahota could respond to Wenman, Dumont turned to Wenman and without uttering a word, grabbed Wenman’s wrist.” According to Sahota, Wenman asked the officer not to touch him and pulled his hand away, then was pushed a few times, and forced against some ironwork at the side of the Bay Centre.

The Statement of Claim asserts that, without provocation, the police officer started using his baton on Wenman, hitting him again and again on the leg—and that the three men felt terrified and repeatedly asked what he was doing—and why. Eventually Wenman warned the officer that he would have to defend himself, and returned a punch. The Statement of Claim goes on to allege that pepper spray was used on Wenman, who was blinded.

More police officers arrived and, the Statement of Claim alleges, one of them “suddenly tackled Hundal head first to the ground and landed on Hundal’s head and back. Hundal’s tooth was chipped, his cheek was cut, and his eye glasses and turban were dislodged from his face…”

Early on in the altercation, Sahota had called 911 and remained on his cell phone throughout the incident, describing events to the operator. (He’s hoping that a recording of this will be submitted in the “discovery” proceeding toward the court case.)

Hundal and Wenman were charged with obstruction of a police officer and Wenman was charged with assaulting a police officer. Their cases are expected to be heard this summer.

The civil suit maintains the men sustained loss and injuries: “Wenman suffered severe contusions to his left leg, thigh and knee resulting in severe injury and scar tissue. Wenman has not recovered full flexibility of his left leg.” Besides Hundal’s chipped tooth, it claims he has suffered a persistent headache. All three men claim to have suffered psychological trauma. 

Alleging assault and battery, infliction of mental suffering, wrongful arrest and detention, misfeasance in public office, and Charter violations, the document concludes, stating: “The officers acted in bad faith, with malice towards the Plaintiffs, and with knowledge that their actions were not justified by sections 25 to 27 of the Criminal Code [sections outlining when an officer is justified in using force] , and with knowledge that grievous bodily harm would result to Wenman and Hundal.”

 

VPD spokesperson Constable Mike Russell said he couldn’t comment on an ongoing file, but in their official “Response to Civil Claim” filed in early February, the “Defendants” claim “reasonable and probable grounds to believe that [Sahota, Wenman and Hundal] were causing a disturbance, and were in a state of intoxication in a public place…”. Yet Sahota and his friends were not charged with any alcohol-related offence.

The VPD Response also claims Officer Dumont had reasonable and probable grounds to believe that Wenman was committing the offence of obstruction when he failed to produce identification; it claims Wenman was told he was under arrest (denied by the other party) early on in the altercation, but resisted—and that justified the use of force. A similar defence is cited around Hundal’s “resistance,” though in neither case does the VPD Response describe the form “resistance” took.

Sahota feels confident about their case, but it’s not going as smoothly as he would like. Legal rules stipulate parties must exchange documents relating to the case “forthwith.” Sahota has asked for the 911 recording, correspondence involving the accused, and VPD files, but claims the police have given “excuse after excuse” to delay this exchange. 

“We are having to take [the VPD] to Court to compel production of documents and will likely have to do it again to compel oral discoveries. The defence wants to put everything on hold until the criminal proceedings [against Hundal and Wenman] are concluded; however, those are completely separate issues and are no reason to delay the civil suit…They are just kind of making that up [ as a reason to deny exchanging documents],” claims Sahota. Constable Russell says: “Our lawyers are fully cooperating…There are no delays as far as we’re concerned.”

Rajinder Sahota’s legal knowledge puts him—and the police—in an unusual position. He is a highly credentialled lawyer who is a passionate advocate for civil rights. His bookshelf is lined with works by Noam Chomsky, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Vikram Seth, and Salman Rushdie. He cannot be easily dismissed as a rowdy drunk or troublemaker. And he has the means to fight for justice. 

Sahota believes that incidents of bad behaviour by police happen more often than the public ever hears about. Too often, if complaints are made about police officers, says Sahota, they are investigated within the force itself—and usually dismissed. “Generally the people who suffer harm due to police action are marginalized, so are not in a position to pursue it further.” 

Just this past month, the provincial government officially recognized the problems of police investigating themselves. In line with a recommendation of the Braidwood Inquiry into Robert Dziekanski’s death, and in order to strengthen public confidence in police, the government will establish a civilian body to investigate all incidents that involve BC police officers and result in serious harm or death.

The BC Civil Liberties Association would like to see the mandate of this body expanded beyond death or serious harm issues. And Sahota wonders just how “independent” it will really be: “The devil is in the details, which are yet to come.” Right now, he still thinks, “Of the options available, the civil legal process is the most independent one to seek redress.”

Quoting Gandhi, Sahota says, “A society is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members.” While he’s not one of those “most vulnerable members,” he hopes this case will help the City and police learn some lessons in how to treat all citizens. 

 

See http://bchannelnews.tv/?p=9005 for more on this story, including a link to the complete Statement of Claim.

Linda Rogers considers addressing human rights issues in her writing to be her chief responsibility as an artist. Leslie Campbell is the editor of Focus Magazine.