Court rules in favour of P.A. cop who pepper sprayed ‘belligerent’ man in cell

Cells in the basement of the Prince Albert Police Service headquarters. Arthur White-Crummey/Daily Herald

A police officer who pepper sprayed a man through a cell door has won an appeal, escaping the Crown’s efforts to quash her acquittal for assault causing bodily harm.

Late last month, the Prince Albert Court of Queen’s Bench ruled on the case of Susan N. Snell. Snell was a 20-year-member of the Prince Albert Police Service in July 2014, when her fellow officers brought in a “belligerent” and “violent” man suspected of threatening people with a knife.

The man, who admitted to being drunk, was locked in the cellblock at the police station. He continued to kick and bang at the door. Snell said that she heard him spitting through an opening in the cell door.

She approached the man and withdrew her pepper spray, keeping it down by her leg. She said she spoke to him softly to persuade him to calm down. But he kept making “vulgar comments.” Snell said she felt he was screwing up his face, getting ready to spit on her.

“She immediately brought up her OC spray and depressed a one second burst to prevent that from occurring,” the court judgement read.

At the end of her September 2015 trial, a judge found that Snell acted in self-defence and was justified in using the spray. The Crown disagreed. At the conclusion of the trial, they argued that Snell used the spray to punish the man for how he was acting.

Almost two years later, the case went up the hill to Queen’s Bench, which hears summary conviction appeals. The Crown was seeking to reverse the acquittal.

They argued that the trial judge was mistaken on what constitutes “reasonable force.” Snell, in their view, didn’t need to use the spray for protection because the man was safely locked in a cell. She could have simply left him alone or backed away.

Further, the Crown argued, her actions did not comply with the Prince Albert Police Service’s use of force policy, since she sprayed the man when he was less than one metre away and failed to take him to be “decontaminated.”

The defence stood by the trial judge’s decision, holding that Snell acted reasonably under the belief that she would be spit on.

The Court of Queen’s Bench upheld that view. Justice D.E. Labach found that Snell’s behaviour was consistent with a desire to talk the man down. He wasn’t convinced that she was seeking to punish the man.

Labach also ruled that her reaction was proportionate to the risk she faced, particularly since she did not know whether the man suffered from a “communicable disease.”

“Spitting on or at someone is a particularly vile act and one that could result in significant consequences,” he wrote. “The respondent had to react quickly and her response was reasonable.”

For similar reasons, the judge rejected the Crown’s argument about the use of force policy.

“She had to make a split second decision to avoid being spat at,” he noted. “She could not be expected to measure or ponder the distance between her and the person spitting at her before she deployed her OC spray.”

Labach wrote that the man was acting so poorly that it was “not realistic” to expect Snell to take him out of the cell to be decontaminated.

He dismissed the appeal, leaving Snell’s acquittal to stand.

Police Chief Troy Cooper confirmed that Snell remains an officer with the force, but said that she is currently on leave for a reason unrelated to the incident.