Judge awards woman $500 over Nelson police search

A judge has awarded Charity Mason damages stemming from a police search in Nelson almost five years ago.  - Nelson Star file photo
A judge has awarded Charity Mason damages stemming from a police search in Nelson almost five years ago.
— image credit: Nelson Star file photo

Although he rejected most of her arguments, a judge has ordered the City of Nelson to pay a woman $500 in damages over a police search conducted almost five years ago.

Charity Mason sued the city, Cst. Drew Turner, and then-chief Dan Maluta after the pick-up truck she and partner Vaughn Blais were in was pulled over on the south end of the orange bridge on the morning of June 26, 2009 for a possible traffic violation.

Blais initially got out of the truck and began yelling at Turner, who ordered him to get back in. When he approached the vehicle, Turner said he smelled the “very strong odour” of vegetative marijuana. He  searched the vehicle along with Mason, Blais, and a hitchhiker who was with them, but found no drugs.

He did, however, seize $7,420 in cash found in a ziplock bag in Mason’s purse as potential proceeds of crime. Blais gave her the money that morning and told police it was from the sale of a boat, but was unable to provide specifics.

The trio was detained for about 45 minutes and then released without formal arrest or charge. Because Blais had a criminal record for violent and drug offences, Maluta and RCMP Cst. Tony Holland both responded to provide Turner with back-up.

Mason, who said she suffered humiliation and ongoing emotional distress, sued over the search, claiming it was “without warrant or reasonable cause” and breached her privacy and Charter rights. However, Turner denied the allegations and said he used reasonable care, skill, and diligence at all times.

Mason, now 30, represented herself in a 3½ day trial last fall before BC Supreme Court Justice Peter Voith, who in his ruling called her “bright and articulate” and said she “worked very diligently to organize and advance her case.”

However, at the end of the second day of testimony, he granted a motion to dismiss the case against Maluta, agreeing Mason had not introduced any evidence against him.

Voith said he accepted the testimony of each witness “in the main,” although he was troubled by Mason’s assertion that she didn’t know what Blais did for a living. When asked if he was a drug dealer, she replied “not to my knowledge.” Although he played a central role in the case, Blais did not testify at the trial.

Voith found that while police witnesses gave sometimes inaccurate evidence, it was due to memory lapses.

He concluded Turner was justified in stopping the truck and had reason to be concerned about his safety. He also accepted that Turner smelled marijuana and had reasonable grounds to arrest and search the vehicle’s occupants.

He further held that the pat-down Mason received during the search was conducted reasonably and disagreed with her claim that it constituted a sexual assault.

While Mason argued the roadside search, visible to the public, “heightened her embarrassment,” Voith accepted police testimony that a search in private would increase the risk of “assertions of impropriety.”

Voith ruled, however, that Turner didn’t inform any of the three of their Charter rights, although Maluta and Holland assumed it had been provided when they arrived.

Turner indicated he would have provided a Charter warning had he found drugs on anyone. His lawyer admitted Turner failed to advise Mason of her right to counsel “without delay” but suggested the error was merely “technical.”

The judge disagreed. Voith said the violation, “though not malicious or high-handed” was serious enough to require an award “that satisfies the object of deterring future similar breaches.”

He awarded damages of $500, to be paid by the City of Nelson, and dismissed all other claims.

The full judgement can be found here.

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