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Officer testifies at his trial he truly thought driver went through red light
He made a mistake. It’s apparent. He admits it.
The traffic ticket RNC Const. Joe Smyth issued to a motorcyclist for running a red light wasn’t warranted, as video from the driver’s Go-Pro camera clearly shows the light was green.
“Obviously, I was wrong,” Smyth said while testifying in his trial at provincial court in St. John’s Monday.
But Smyth insists that from his point of view on that busy afternoon on May 12, 2017, while driving southbound in rush-hour traffic, he honestly thought the motorcyclist’s northbound light was red.
“I made a split-second observation,” Smyth said, adding he also saw the motorcyclist driving his Honda Repsol in between cars and making improper lane changes when he looked back over his shoulder. “A lot happened in those few seconds.
“It’s a different perspective completely (from that of the Go-Pro’s viewpoint).”
Smyth faces one count of obstructing justice for issuing a traffic ticket knowing it was false.
The 40-year-old handed Sayed Husaini four traffic tickets that day for running a red light at the intersection of Highland Drive and Torbay Road, improperly passing vehicles, driving between vehicles and driving with a defective tire.
Smyth said he had received word from a fellow officer that an orange motorcycle matching the description of the one he had been looking for was in the Torbay Road area. A month earlier, Smyth did a brief pursuit of an orange motorcycle after the driver had reportedly been seen driving dangerously. However, the driver wouldn’t stop and sped away.
Once he got the call at 4 p.m. on May 12, 2017, Smyth said, he travelled across town to get to Torbay Road, but he didn’t rush, as it wasn’t high priority. When he arrived and spotted the motorcycle heading in the opposite direction, he said adrenalin kicked in. He said when he saw the driver violate traffic laws, he turned around, stopped him and issued the tickets.
Husaini made a public complaint, claiming Smyth was aggressive and rude, and tried to intimidate him. He said Smyth falsified notes to cover up his behaviour.
“It was hard for me to swallow those allegations,” Smyth testified, noting 90 per cent of drivers stopped for traffic infractions question being issued a ticket. “I wasn’t angry. I’m still not.”
Smyth asserts he acted appropriately based on what he saw.
“Did you have any reason to doubt the validity of those tickets?” defence lawyer Jerome Kennedy asked.
“No, I did not,” Smyth replied.
Smyth was charged in July 2017 after an investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT), a civilian-led police oversight agency.
Smyth — who has been suspended without pay — admitted he was shocked to find out ASIRT was involved.
“(After being contacted by ASIRT), the first thing I thought was, what’s someone after doing. I figured they’d want me as a witness for something,” he said.
When he found out it was concerning him and the motorcycle traffic stop months before, “My jaw dropped. I couldn’t fathom what the allegation would be.”
Kennedy asked Smyth what he thought of ASIRT’s insinuation that he had a personal vendetta against Husaini.
“I do my job as I’m requested to do it,” said Smyth, pointing out it’s common for officers to try to track down suspects. “There’s no personal vendetta, absolutely not.
“I find it astonishing that a police body would make that suggestion to me. … It’s not a personal mission.”
Smyth later added, “I was not out to get him on any personal level. It’s the job of an officer to target certain individuals, but there’s no malice.”
Kennedy asked Smyth what his reaction was when he watched the Go-Pro video and saw the light was actually green.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Smyth replied. “And the thought of a criminal investigation by an outside police body made me sicker. It still makes me sicker.”
The traffic stop happened a month after the judicial inquiry into Don Dunphy's death had concluded, but the final report had not yet been released. Smyth — who had been a member of the protective services unit for the premier’s office at the time — fatally shot Dunphy on Easter Sunday in 2015 after he visited the home of the 58-year-old about certain comments he had posted to Twitter.
Smyth spoke about the stress and mental impact the inquiry in 2017 had on him and his family.
“The actual testifying was brutal. It wasn’t what I expected at all,” said Smyth, adding that he expected those involved would pursue the truth, instead of targeting him.
He said he was the target of insults, and people called his home and came to his house.
After being off on sick leave, he went back to work in April 2017, he said.
“I thought it would be good for me,” he said, “to go back doing what you love to do.”
Earlier in the day, Acting Insp. Paul Didham, who was Smyth’s supervisor, testified that Smyth is a good officer and a hard worker.
Didham said that in the 15 years he spent in the RNC’s traffic division, he’s never seen a contested traffic ticket case result in criminal charges.
Judge Mike Madden began proceedings by dismissing an application by the defence for a directed verdict — an early acquittal before all the evidence has been presented. Madden said that while he is not saying Smyth is guilty, there is still a possibility a properly instructed jury would render a guilty verdict, so the application must be denied.
The trial continues Tuesday with Dr. Marina Hewlett expected to take the stand. She provided counselling to Smyth after the Dunphy shooting.