RCMP officers take the stand to defend handling of root-beer incident
RCMP officers believed a man was obstructing a liquor offence investigation when he refused to comply with their instructions.
Const. Robert Andrew Scott Burchett, 50, and Cpl. Kevin Roger Lee Halwa, 42, both testified Monday as to why they applied the force they did on Levi Desjarlais on the evening of Aug. 20, 2011.
Desjarlais has filed a lawsuit against Halwa, Burchett and Cpl. Dean Allan Purcka, 41, for the alleged assault that followed. The three RCMP officers also face assault charges.
Desjarlais said he was pepper-sprayed, kneed in the groin and beaten during the altercation.
“If you obstruct the police, sometimes bad things happen,” said Burchett during his testimony.
Burchett and Purcka were in Sylvan Lake that evening on overtime from other detachments. In the summer, the Sylvan Lake RCMP are provided extra money from the town to increase the police presence for the summer rowdiness.
Burchett was driving in a dark blue unmarked prisoner van. He saw Desjarlais walking on the sidewalk holding what he believed at the time to be a bottle of beer. Later, Burchett would learn it was in fact root beer.
Throughout direct and cross examination, Burchett said he thought Desjarlais held a beer during the incident.
Even when Crown Prosecutor Photini Papadatou continually questioned him about the legality of drinking a root beer in public.
During her cross examination, Papadatou held up a clear plastic cup and asked Burchett “water or vodka?”
Burchett said water. Papadatou asked “how do you know?”
Burchett said “I don’t.”
Papadatou took a sip and put the cup down.
Burchett said he called out several times, trying to get Desjarlais’ attention. He was unsuccessful at first, so the 14-year Mountie parked his vehicle partially on the sidewalk, exited and walked up to Desjarlais.
Burchett walked towards Desjarlais, said “I’ll take that,” and tried to grab the bottle from his hands. Burchett said Desjarlais pulled away, told the officer he wasn’t handing over the bottle and walked away. Burchett called for backup saying he was concerned for his safety, noting that Desjarlais had an angry look to him.
On Monday, Desjarlais testified he had handed the bottle over twice and on the first inspection Burchett said it was beer.
As the matter escalated, Burchett said Desjarlais refused to identify himself and took a swig from the bottle. It was at this point that Burchett told Desjarlais he was under arrest for obstruction.
Halwa testified Burchett and Purcka held Desjarlais and attempted to get handcuffs on him, but were “losing the battle.” Halwa said they felt Desjarlais was resisting and was succeeding in not complying with police direction. At one point Desjarlais grabbed onto Purcka’s vest, which the officers interpreted as a threat.
Halwa used his pepper-spray on Desjarlais to get him to the ground. After the struggle, which only lasted a few minutes, Halwa and Purcka attempted to get Desjarlais into a police car. Halwa said Desjarlais went stiff and there was a bit of a struggle that ensued.
On Monday, Desjarlais said he had his groin grabbed and kneed in an effort to get him into the vehicle. Halwa denied the allegation on Tuesday during his testimony.
Desjarlais was transported to the Sylvan Lake RCMP detachment where he was given treatment for his pepper-sprayed eyes. A promise to appear in court was written up, alleging causing a disturbance, obstruction and resisting arrest. Halwa later made the decision to not formally swear the charges against Desjarlais and they did not proceed.
Trial continues today in Red Deer provincial court.