Hugs and tears followed Judge Anne Wallace’s decision Thursday in the Salmon Arm Law Courts.
The Provincial Court judge acquitted Salmon Arm police officer Micah Chan of a charge of dangerous driving.
In the courtroom, intense emotion was evident on the faces of the police officers present, as well as Helen and Ian Eggen, parents of Courtenay.
Just before midnight on June 20, 2013, a white Chevrolet Cavalier driven by 21-year-old Courtenay Eggen of Cherryville crashed into a parked dump truck in the Salmon Arm industrial park, killing her. Shortly after, a police cruiser driven by Const. Chan went off the road nearby, sliding backwards down an embankment.
Chan was charged in December 2013 following an investigation by the police Independent Investigations Office, a civilian-led body that conducts investigations into police-involved incidents that result in death or serious harm.
Following the ruling, Chan went to the couple to offer condolences. He had been advised not to speak to them prior to the verdict.
Ian Eggen said he and his spouse don’t blame Chan for their daughter’s death and they appreciated the judge’s in-depth decision.
“I am relieved that he wasn’t guilty – that the court was very deliberate that he was not guilty,” said an emotional Ian. “We weren’t here looking for vengeance. We wanted information on what happened.”
He said he considered this a great exercise of the legal system, in that police are held to the same standards as others.
“We don’t blame him for our daughter’s death – she was at fault,” he said, adding that Courtenay was probably over-confident in her driving abilities.
The Eggens do, however, have suggestions for improvement.
They would like to see more of an ongoing visible police presence, rather than “entrapment.”
They would also like to see dashboard cameras in all police cars, as well as time-stamping on all radio transmissions, so evidence is more detailed – whether it be used to prove innocence or guilt.
They also hope the verdict in the case will not give officers licence to operate at excessive speed.
Helen Eggen said she feels no animosity.
She emphasizes that Courtenay was a good girl whose life was going well. She was taking pre-apprentice training to be an electrician and had a big test coming up the next day.
“She wouldn’t have done anything to jeopardize it… In her life, things were good.”
Regarding the case, Staff Sgt. Kevin Keane of the Salmon Arm detachment said although he found it disappointing the matter was brought to trial, it allowed for a full review of the facts.
“It is anticipated that the truth will dispel the sensationalist and untrue rumours of what occurred on that night. It is my sincere wish that this process brought some comfort to those affected, and will assist with the healing process.”
Keane said the trial was hard on Const. Chan, yet he didn’t miss a shift during the 16 months leading up to it. He also said Chan expressed his appreciation for the support he’s received from the community.
In a detailed ruling, Judge Wallace went over the evidence presented. She acknowledged the evening of June 20 had a tragic outcome, and nothing that happened in the court case could take away the grief of Courtenay’s family.
In coming to her decision, Wallace referred to applicable sections in the Criminal Code and Motor Vehicle Act.
She said the legal test of dangerous driving is whether the driving, viewed objectively but with all circumstances considered, is markedly different from what a reasonable, prudent person would do in the circumstances.
Added to that is the fact Chan is a police officer who was operating an emergency vehicle in discharge of his duty. An officer can exceed the speed limit, if the circumstances fall within MVA regulations.
Although police officers who testified said they wouldn’t classify Chan’s actions as a pursuit because the driver of the white car was already driving at high speeds, Wallace did, referring to the wording of the law.
“I find on the plain meaning of those words, Const. Chan began pursuing the white car because it didn’t stop.”
In a pursuit, the law states that an officer must decide if the need for action outweighs the risk to the public.
Wallace said the high speed of the driver was “an obvious risk to the public.”
She also said the evidence provided by a civilian witness does not establish whether the driver knew Chan was behind her – he did not activate his siren – nor is there an explanation of why the driver went through the stop sign so fast.
“I cannot say if the driver of the white car was attempting to evade the police car or whether her speed at Five Corners was part of a pattern of reckless driving.”
Wallace also referred to data provided by expert witnesses that showed Chan slowed his vehicle at intersections, as well as at corners in his drive between Five Corners and the crash site.
The data showed his highest speed was 155 km/hr and his average speed was 118.
Wallace also referred to a Supreme Court of Canada decision that ruled it is the manner of driving which determines if it’s dangerous, not the consequence.
When Chan radioed in to the detachment that he was following a driver who had gone through the stop sign and was travelling at a speed of about 140 km/hr, he was told to “shut it down,” which officers said means, turn off the emergency lights and pull over. Chan responded with “10/4.”
Wallace said the evidence doesn’t determine if Chan promptly followed the direction to stop. She noted everything happened very quickly, with the whole route taking under two minutes. She said the detailed analysis at the trial couldn’t pinpoint when on the route the order for Chan to stop occurred.
“His going off the road might actually have occurred exactly after being given direction to stop.”
Wallace concluded that when she considered all the evidence, she was not convinced Const. Chan was driving dangerously, “and I acquit him.”