2009 incident still before RNC complaints commission

Published on November 11, 2012
The Telegram

A Mount Pearl mother is frustrated at the length of time a complaint against the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary (RNC) is taking and says she feels weighed down against the legal representation on the officers' side.

Diane Spurrell's son, Dane, was arrested April 18, 2009, when he was 18. Two RNC officers mistook his autism for public intoxication. During that time he was not allowed to call home.

Then-police chief Joe Browne apologized to Dane Spurrell and his mother.

The complaint was subsequently filed with the RNC Public Complaints Commission, and discussions on the process for a hearing began in fall 2010.

Proceedings finally commenced in June 2011 and it's still before the commission.

"It was determined that a total of seven lawyers would be required to participate in those proceedings," the commission's most recent annual activity report states.

"The courtroom schedules and obligations of seven lawyers impacted the timeliness of scheduling dates for hearings."

None of those lawyers are representing Dane Spurrell, although his mother said the commission's lawyer, Peter O'Flaherty, is doing a good job in his role. The commission lawyer acts for the public interest.

The commission doesn't pay legal bills of either party, but either the complainants or police defendants are entitled to bring their own counsel.

The process isn't fair when the complainant - her son - can't afford a lawyer, she noted.

"Either everyone gets lawyers or nobody gets lawyers," Spurrell said. "If I had a lawyer to counter (the police) lawyers, it would work better."

She said her son did receive a settlement from the RNC, but that was set aside for his future and Spurrell doesn't think she should be forced to use that money to pay legal bills.

The hearing has consumed much of her time since it began.

"What bothers me in all of this is that my son, in my opinion, did nothing wrong. ... These two officers have adequate counsel," Spurrell said.

Dane Spurrell was on his way home from renting a movie late on a Saturday night when he was stopped by police.

The officers, who Spurrell said thought her son was drunk, arrested him and took him to the lockup.

After the incident, Spurrell said, the police officers should have been able to tell that Dane was physically different because he has a chromosomal abnormality and his appearance should have given the officers an idea about his condition.

Parties on all sides hope the hearing will finally conclude in December.

The adjudicator's report is expected within 90 days after the hearing concludes.

Spurrell said she's articulate and able to follow the proceedings, but some people might not be in the same position. But she said it's still not fair for her and her son.

"They are armed with a lot more knowledge of the law than we are," she said. "They know how to use it, I suppose."

She said she never imagined that it would take this long.

"I was quite appalled," said Spurrell, who blamed the officers' legal counsel for what she describes as delaying tactics.

"(Dane) is the victim in all this. ... (The police) are hoping we will give up."

She said a lengthy delay was caused by the officers' counsel requesting her son's medical records.

Spurrell noted lawyer Bob Simmonds - who now represents an officer in the complaints process - spoke out in the media after the incident in 2009 about police needing better judgment.

Simmonds said scheduling all the private practice lawyers involved is difficult and that's bogged down the process.

He said there have been a number of legal and technical issues that have come up, including items that have required further research, and he acknowledged frustration on everyone's part, especially anyone not used to the legal process.

"It's no one's fault," he said.

Simmonds has been involved in a number of matters before the complaints commission and said the Spurrell matter is one of the longest. He described the incident as the coming together of "very unfortunate events."

O'Flaherty has one more witness and then lawyers for the officers will present their evidence.