The Supreme Court of Canada (SCC) on Friday held that police officers cannot sue Crown prosecutors over actions they claim damaged their reputation.
In an 8-1 decision, the SCC found that the police cannot sue Crown prosecutors for misfeasance, the wrongful exercise of lawful authority. This decision reinforces the mutually independent relationship between the police and the Crown.
In 2009, three officers with the Toronto Police Service arrested a pair of suspects in connection with an armed robbery. Prior to the trial, one of the suspects testified that their confession to the officers was given under duress. This led to a stay of the first suspect’s conviction and a reduced sentence for the second. The trial judge described the officer’s conduct as “police brutality.” The officers were never asked to testify.
After the trial, it was discovered that the injuries sustained by the suspects were made after their confession; the allegations of police misconduct were unsubstantiated by the evidence.
The officers sought damages against the Crown for negligence and misfeasance in failing to properly investigate and rebut the claims of police brutality. They claim to have suffered irreparable harm to their reputation and credibility because of the lack of action. The lower courts upheld only the misfeasance charge.
The majority for the SCC held that prosecutors being at risk of civil liability would in turn risk objectivity and independence in fulfilling their role within the justice system: safeguarding and vindicating the rights of the accused, who is exposed to the possibility of the misuse of prosecutorial power.
The majority found that “[p]rosecutorial immunity advances the public interest by enabling prosecutors to make discretionary decisions in fulfilment of their professional obligations without fear of judicial or political interference, thus fulfilling their quasi‑judicial roles as ministers of justice.” For police officers to have the ability to sue the Crown for misfeasance over prosecutors’ decisions raises great risks for the accused and the integrity of the justice system as a whole. Permitting police lawsuits against the Crown suggests to the public that officers could “police” prosecutions through civil law, erasing public confidence in the court’s objectivity.
Justice Suzanne Côté, in her dissent, stated that no person should be in a position that is above the law, and a ruling against allowing damages in this scenario would be incompatible with a system that abhors absolute immunities.