A former Halifax taxi driver told police that he hugged and kissed a young woman who was his passenger last year.
In a video of the police interrogation, Tesfom Kidane Mengis, 37, is heard telling a Halifax Regional Police constable that he was responding to the woman telling him he was “a nice guy” for allowing her not to pay for her cab ride.
The video was shown Wednesday during a voir dire, or trial within a trial, at Mengis's sexual assault trial in Halifax provincial court. The arresting officer, Const. Jasmin Razic, who conducted the interrogation, returned to the stand as a Crown witness while the video was played.
The voir dire was sparked by the defence filing a charter brief arguing language barriers prevented Mengis from understanding his rights during and after his arrest on the afternoon of Jan. 6, 2019.
At that time, Mengis had been in Canada for three years and spoke with a heavy accent. His original language is Tigrinya, which is spoken in eastern African countries such as Eritrea and Ethiopia.
Judge Gregory Lenehan must decide whether the police interrogation can be admitted as evidence in the main trial.
In court earlier this week, the Halifax university student, who cannot be identified, denied saying she couldn't pay for the cab ride early on the morning of Jan. 6, 2019.
She testified that after the cab arrived in front of her apartment, Mengis said she didn't have to pay and then grabbed the back of her head, forcibly kissed her and hiked her skirt halfway up her back.
She said she pulled away from him, left the cab and ran into her apartment. Her roommate called police and they tracked Mengis down as the Yellow Cab driver on that ride.
During the interrogation, Mengis told Razic that he didn’t know the woman didn’t want to be hugged and kissed.
“If she was mad, she would have said something to me, you know what I mean?” Mengis said. "I would apologize, if she was mad."
As for the woman’s skirt, Razic didn’t ask Mengis directly whether he hauled it up her back. In a part of the interrogation that isn’t clear on the recording, Mengis appears to agree he may have touched the woman’s skirt as she got out of the cab.
After Razic asked him whether he would write a letter of apology, Mengis agreed to do so. The video shows Razic leaving the room and Mengis writing the letter. After he finishes, he makes a kind of groaning noise and puts both of his hands to his head.
Otherwise Mengis was calm during the interrogation, occasionally using gestures and raising his voice a bit to get his point across. At a couple of points when Mengis is alone in the room, he mutters a few words to himself.
In court, Mengis has shown little response to the proceedings, including during emotional testimony Tuesday from the alleged victim. He did turn once to look at his family and friends in the courtroom while the interrogation video was played.
Before the video was shown, the police officer told Crown attorney Rick Woodburn that he could understand Mengis and that he had “zero concerns” that Mengis couldn’t understand him.
At the beginning of the interrogation, the officer tells Mengis "any time you have questions, let me know. Slow me down."
Mengis replies, "I speak English but when it's fast ... you know, slow speed."
During his cross-examination of Razic, defence lawyer Godfred Chongatera asked whether the officer agreed whether there were “gaps and pauses and broken English” in Mengis’s responses to his questions.
“I would agree that there’s gaps and pauses, correct?" Razic replied. "And any sort of broken English that you’re referring to, I still had no problem understanding and getting the point across.”
Chongatera also asked the officer about him raising the possibility during the interrogation of Mengis’s DNA being found on the alleged victim.
Chongatera said “at the time you conducted your interview, is it right to suggest that you had no way of knowing that there was either DNA on Mr. Mengis or DNA on (the complainant)?”
“No DNA was taken from either party,” Razic replied.
Chongatera also noted that even though Razic told Mengis during the interrogation that the letter "absolutely" would go to the alleged victim, that was never done.
Amid the prolonged arguments over the admissibility of the police interrogation, the judge adjourned the trial until March 13 and also set aside another day on March 16.
The proceedings are also longer than usual because everything said in court is being translated to Mengis into Tigrinya.