A police officer who breached the public’s trust did so, in part, because of the culture of the Abbotsford Police Department (APD) that encouraged success at all costs, defence lawyer Brock Martland said Friday.
But Crown lawyer Peter Hogg dismissed the notion, saying there was no evidence that the APD had a “bending of the rules” culture.
The two presented a joint submission in B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver at a sentencing hearing for former APD officer Christopher Nicholson.
Nicholson pleaded guilty last September to a charge of breach of trust in relation to an investigation that began in 2012.
Both lawyers recommended that Nicholson receive a 17-month conditional sentence.
Justice Brenda Brown agreed with the recommendation, saying that Nicholson had been in a position of trust.
“Society places great trust in police officers, and must be able to rely on that trust,” she said. “Mr. Nicholson’s breach has undermined the confidence of the public in at least the APD and perhaps in police generally.”
Nicholson was originally charged with 10 offences – six counts of obstructing justice, three counts of breach of trust and one count of conspiracy to traffic a controlled substance – but pleaded guilty to, and was sentenced, only on the one charge.
The other nine charges were stayed.
The court heard that the remaining charge was based on three incidents, including two in which false information was provided to other officers investigating drug cases.
In one of those incidents, Nicholson doubled the number of marijuana plants that an informant told him would be found in a grow-op that was under investigation.
In the other, he told an informant to provide a different date for a drug delivery that had apparently occurred.
In the third incident, Nicholson was transporting a man who had been arrested for suspicion of drug trafficking and told him to “pitch” any evidence he had on him before they got to the police station.
Hogg said these incidents showed a pattern of “calculated deceit” on Nicholson’s behalf.
“The actions clearly strike at the heart of the justice system,” he said.
Hogg said Nicholson’s charges resulted in 12 prosecutions being stayed because of the appearance that there could have been improprieties.
Defence lawyer Martland said Nicholson’s behaviour was motivated by his “wanting to make the community where he worked and raised his children a safer place.”
“Christopher Nicholson, more than anything, wanted to be an effective police officer,” he said.
Martland said Nicholson wanted to protect his sources to get the information he needed in drug and gang investigations, but, in so doing, there were times that he failed to follow “the rules absolutely.”
For example, Martland said Nicholson lied about the number of plants in the grow-op because the informant had provided a very specific number and he was worried that using that number would identify the individual.
Martland said the environment at the APD was also a factor.
“The culture of the APD was one of, ‘We’ll get it done at all the costs.’ If there’s some bending of the rules, if it means getting the job done, then that might be tolerated,” Martland said.
Hogg strongly disagreed.
“There is no evidence of success at all costs at the APD. There is no evidence that APD officers were counselled or trained to falsify informant information. There was one officer who emerged from the investigation … with respect to this type of offence and that is this accused.”
Martland said, however, that Nicholson takes responsibility for his actions and has “suffered tremendously” with the loss of his job and the shame that the charges have brought upon him. He was a “dedicated, relentless and determined police officer” whose work now consists of alarm installation.
The court was presented with 17 letters of support on Nicholson’s behalf.
“Through me, as his counsel, he asked that I convey his deep regret and apologies to the court, to the (Abbotsford Police) department, to the public,” Martland said.
Nicholson’s sentence begins with six months of house arrest during which time he is permitted to leave his property to work, go to medical appointments, or take his two kids, ages 6 and 7, to scheduled activities (this does not include family outings). He is also allowed 2.5 hours three times a week to go to the gym and run errands.
For the remaining 11 months, he is given more freedom, but must abide by a curfew of midnight to 6 a.m.
Following the sentencing, the APD issued a press release, in which Chief Bob Rich said the matter had been a “difficult and lengthy process” for the department.
He said Nicholson remains suspended without pay.
“The men and women of the Abbotsford Police Department continue to proudly serve our community with courage and integrity. We thank our community for their ongoing support,” he said.