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Judge bans Ontario police officers from Snelgrove trial amid COVID-19 concerns

RNC Const. Doug Snelgrove (foreground) sits in the dock during the jury selection proceedings for his sexual assault trial in St. John's Tuesday, as his lawyers, Randy Piercey and Jon Noonan, chat with Crown prosecutor Lloyd Strickland.
RNC Const. Doug Snelgrove (foreground) sits in the dock during the jury selection proceedings for his sexual assault trial in St. John's Tuesday, as his lawyers, Randy Piercey and Jon Noonan, chat with Crown prosecutor Lloyd Strickland.

OPP officers deemed essential workers: Haggie

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Two Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers who attended the jury selection process for the sexual assault trial of RNC Const. Doug Snelgrove as observers were asked to leave the building Tuesday and not come back.

The two officers, who had reportedly been involved in the investigation but not scheduled to testify, had come from Ontario to take in the proceedings, which are being held at the former School for the Deaf in St. John’s. They had been granted exemptions to the mandatory 14-day self-isolation period by the provincial government, allowing them to attend their places of work only.

While the officers presented their exemption documents to sheriff officers responsible for administering the court’s COVID-19 screening protocol, other court participants in the building weren’t aware of the situation — including the 151 people who had been summoned for jury duty.

Defence lawyer Randy Piercey brought his concern to the attention of the presiding judge, Justice Garrett Handrigan, who asked the OPP officers to leave the building and indicated the potential jurors could apply for a dismissal if they had concerns about exposure to COVID-19 as a result of the officers’ presence. Two people did, and Garrett granted them exemptions from jury duty.

When court resumed after the lunch break, Handrigan made an order, despite the province’s exemption rules, banning the two officers from returning to the building, citing coronavirus exposure precautions.

There is no indication either of the OPP officers has the coronavirus.

The province’s COVID-19-related travel ban, issued as a special-measures order under the Public Health Protection and Promotion Act, currently restricts entry to Newfoundland and Labrador to residents of the Atlantic provinces, certain asymptomatic workers as listed in a self-isolation exemption order and those who have been granted advance permission from the chief medical officer.

When questioned about the situation during a scrum at Confederation Building Tuesday afternoon, Health and Community Services Minister Dr. John Haggie said the OPP officers had been given exemptions because they were deemed essential workers.

“We don’t make that determination in public health,” Haggie said. “What happens is if someone is deemed essential, then the criteria around the exemption are very clear. They are expected to isolate when not either on the way to work or at work, and when they are at work they’re expected to observe COVID-19 precautions, so that’s physical distancing, wearing masks and basically keeping to themselves.”

People with exemptions aren’t particularly obligated to announce it, Haggie said.

“I think most of the work environments would be aware of that, simply by the nature of the people who are there and the fact that they are required to wear masks.”

When asked to respond to reports the OPP officers had not worn face masks for the entire duration of their time in the off-site court facility, Haggie pointed to the province’s non-compliance reporting procedure, saying anyone with information on a person breaching the special health measures can file a report to be investigated.

Haggie noted essential workers have been travelling back and forth to the province for six months.

“We know that by and large if we get cases of COVID it’s because it’s brought in from outside, so unless you go backwards, given our epidemiology, we’ve done something right,” he said, when asked if he was concerned for court employees.

“It’s a risk, but there’s no way you can live with COVID without risk. What you do is manage the risk to a level that is acceptable.”

By 4 p.m. Tuesday, 12 jurors had been chosen for Snelgrove’s trial, which is scheduled to begin Wednesday morning. The trial is the first in this province — and the second in the country — to proceed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and is expected to last 10 days.

This is Snelgrove’s second time going to trial on the allegation he sexually assaulted a woman while he was on duty as a police officer in St. John’s in 2014. He was acquitted in 2017 before the Crown appealed and a new trial was ordered, first by the Newfoundland and Labrador Court of Appeal and later by the Supreme Court of Canada.

This version was updated.

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