Police Officer Sentenced to 12 Months in Jail for Death of Woman in Custody

Written on Behalf of Affleck & Barrison LLP

A new decision by the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, and for the first time in Canada, a police officer has been convicted and sentenced for failing to provide medical assistance to an individual in their custody.

In November 2019, London Police Constable Nicholas Doering (“Doering”) was convicted of criminal negligence causing death and failing to provide the necessaries of life in the death of Debralee Chrisjohn (“Chrisjohn”).

THE FACTS

On September 7, 2016, Chrisjohn, while in police custody, died of a heart attack as a result of having consumed a toxic level of methamphetamine.

A video of Chrisjohn being taken into the Ontario Provincial Police detachment showed her to be limp, silent and demonstrating no signs of movement.  She was witnessed to being dragged into a cell.  At that point, EMS was called, however, by the time they arrived they were unable to save her life.

Chrisjohn was in the custody of Constable Doering, who had arrested her for an outstanding OPP warrant, and transferred Chrisjohn to OPP custody. 

At his trial, Constable Doering testified that he did not believe that Chrisjohn required medical attention and was simply suffering from the effects of methamphetamine.  According to the defence, Constable Doering made an error in judgement that was reasonable based upon his experience with methamphetamine users and his conversation with an EMS supervisor early on in her detention.  Doering denied that he deliberately misled OPP officers.

The following facts were admitted by Constable Doering at his trial:

  • Chrisjohn was unable to provide herself with the necessaries of life while in the custody of Constable Doering;
  • Methamphetamine is a powerful stimulant drug and users often experience confused cognitive function, paranoia, elevated sensory stimulation and agitation and restlessness;
  • Medical treatment is available for those who have ingested methamphetamine, which typically includes monitoring and treating the user’s symptoms in a hospital until the effects have dissipated;
  • Medical treatment is not always warranted for those who experience side-effects from using methamphetamines;
  • If treatment or intervention is required, the sooner treatment is received the better;
  • On September 7, 2016, Chrisjohn required medical treatment due to the effects of using methamphetamines at the time of her transfer to the OPP;
  • Chrisjohn was in a critical state and required urgent medical intervention from the time of her arrival at the Elgin OPP detachment and onwards;
  • The delay in providing Chrisjohn with medical treatment impacted her chance of survival.  If she had received medical attention prior to the arrival of EMS at the Elgin OPP detachment, she may have survived.

THE ALLEGATIONS AND CRIMINAL OFFENCES

At trial, Crown prosecutors alleged that Constable Doering knowingly provided false and incomplete information regarding Chrisjohn’s medical condition to the OPP when he transferred custody and told OPP that she had been medically cleared.  Thus, demonstrating a wanton and reckless disregard for her life and providing the elements of criminal negligence causing death.  Furthermore, it was alleged that Constable Doering’s behaviour was a marked and substantial departure from the standard of care of a reasonable and prudent police officer.

Section 215 of the Criminal Code outlines the offence of failing to provide the necessaries of life.  According to the law, where a person is in charge of another, he/she has a duty to provide the necessaries of life.  The standard is not of perfection. The Crown prosecutor must prove that there was a marked departure from that of a reasonably prudent person having charge of another, in circumstances where it is reasonably foreseeable that a failure to provide the necessaries of life would lead to a risk of danger to the life of the victim.

Section 219 of the Criminal Code outlines the offence of criminal negligence.  This offence requires proof that the accused did something or failed to do something that was his/her legal duty to do that demonstrates a wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of others.  The offence also requires that the accused’s conduct was a marked and substantial departure from the standard of care that a reasonably prudent person would observe in the circumstances.

Justice Pomerance, in her reasons for judgement, stated:

The evidence in this case suggests that stereotypes and generalized assumptions played a role in the events leading to Ms. Chrisjohn’s death.  …

In short, Cst. Doering had pre-conceived notions about drug users and he held fast to those notions when dealing with Ms. Chrisjohn.  Rather than moulding his theory to fit the facts, he seems to have moulded the facts to fit his theory. …

I am satisfied that a reasonably prudent police officer would have appreciated the need for medical assistance at the time of the transfer to the OPP, if not before, and would have been aware of the risk that failure to obtain such medical assistance would endanger Ms. Chrisjohn’s life. 

Justice Pomerance found that Constable Doering failed to provide Chrisjohn with the necessaries of life and in providing erroneous and incomplete information about Chrisjohn’s medical condition to OPP demonstrated a wanton and reckless disregard for her life, thus contributing to Chrisjohn’s death.  He was therefore found guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

Justice Renee Pomerance sentenced Constable Doering to 12 months in jail.  In her sentencing decision, she stated:

The sentence must convey the irrefutable message that Ms. Chrisjohn’s life was valued and valuable. … [I]n some cases, loss of life will, practically and symbolically, command the most significant form of penalty. This is one of those cases.

Constable Doering has been suspended from his duties with the London Police with pay and is currently appealing the decision. 

We will continue to follow this criminal case as it makes its way through the appeal process and will report any developments in this blog.

If you are facing a drug related charge or have any questions regarding your legal rights, contact Affleck & Barrison LLP online or at 905-404-1947.  We offer a free consultation and are available to help you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.