On July 25, 2018, the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld Christie Ann Culotta’s (“Culotta”) convictions on two counts of operating a vessel causing bodily harm while having a blood-alcohol content over the legal limit. This was a split decision, with a two-judge majority and Justice Gladys Pardu dissenting.
It has been reported that Culotta intends to take her case to the Supreme Court of Canada to determine the legality of taking extra blood samples from a suspected impaired boater in a hospital for use by the police.
On August 1, 2013 at approximately 2am, Culotta was driving a boat back to her family cottage from a party at a yacht club on Muskoka Lake. It was raining heavily and visibility was poor. There were four other young women on board.
Culotta was driving the boat at a “relatively high speed, fast enough that the hull planed above the water”. She then crashed into a rocky island, leaving a white V-shaped mark on the rocks above the waterline.
Three of the passengers were ejected from the boat, one landing on the island and two in the water. All three passenger were injured, fortunately there were no fatalities.
Culotta was not seriously injured and spoke with the investigating officer after the boaters were rescued. Ambulances rushed the two seriously injured victims to the hospital, while Culotta and two others with minor injuries were treated by ambulance.
An Ontario Provincial Police officer smelled alcohol in the ambulance and asked Culotta if she had been drinking. She admitted that she had a vodka and tonic and one or two additional drinks at dinner. The officer observed Culotta’s watery eyes and a slight slurring in her speech, but he was unsure whether this was from intoxication, crying, rain, or facial injuries.
Culotta was arrested a little more than an hour after the accident, but the officer did not immediately caution her about her right to silence in order to avoid interference with her medical care. She was cautioned half an hour later at the hospital. The officer tried to contact Culotta’s father in order for her to retain a lawyer, but to no avail.
In hospital, doctors took blood tests for medical purposes, including to test her blood alcohol. At trial, it became apparent that the officer told the lab technician that he wanted to seal some of the blood for investigative purposes. The technician drew more blood than was medically required, without Culotta’s consent. Two of the six vials of blood were sealed by the OPP officer and placed on a shelf in the laboratory refrigerator that was marked “for police use”. The blood was tested for alcohol content after a warrant was granted.
Blood tests revealed 107 mg of alcohol in 100 mL of blood, which is over the legal limit of 80.
The trial judge excluded the blood sample evidence, but admitted Culotta’s hospital records, which showed a blood alcohol level over the legal limit. The trial judge also found that Culotta’s statements to the police were found to be voluntary.
Culotta was convicted in a judge alone trial.
ONTARIO COURT OF APPEAL
At the Court of Appeal, Culotta contested the trial judge’s rulings with respect to the admissibility of evidence that she maintains were obtained in violation of her rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (“Charter”).
The two judge majority agreed with the trial judge in finding that Culotta’s statements to the police were voluntary and that her hospital records were properly obtained with a search warrant. Justice V.B. Nordheimer, writing on behalf of the majority, wrote:
Whether the lab technician did or did not take other blood samples for the police, some blood would have been taken from the appellant, and it would have been tested for blood-alcohol concentration regardless. Consequently, the Charter infringement regarding the two vials of blood is independent of the other blood samples taken. The exclusion of one does not undermine the admissibility and evidentiary value of the other.
JUSTICE PARDU’S DISSENTING OPINION
Justice Pardu, in her dissenting opinion at the Court of Appeal, was of the opinion that the Charter breaches were serious grounds to quash the convictions and order a new trial.
Justice Pardu found that Culotta’s hospital records, which included an analysis of her blood, should be excluded. She was especially concerned that the hospital had a tray in its refrigerator specifically reserved for police blood samples and a special form for when blood is taken at the request of police.
Justice Pardu, in her dissenting opinion, wrote:
Co-opting extra blood samples was a serious breach by police. There are statutory regimes prescribed for the taking of breath or blood samples where impaired driving offences are suspected. These regimes must be well known to police. For police to sidestep these procedures by inserting themselves into an accused person’s medical care is a grave misstep.
Calutta’s lawyers have disclosed their intention to appeal this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. Given that the Court of Appeal was a split decision, Calutta can automatically appeal the decision without seeking leave from the Court.
We will continue to follow any developments in this case as it proceeds to the Supreme Court of Canada in this blog. In the meantime, if you have been charged with an impaired driving offence or have any questions regarding your legal rights, please contact the experienced criminal lawyers at Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947. We take all steps necessary to protect your best interests. We maintain a 24-hour emergency service line and offer free confidential consultation to all prospective clients.