Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 25/8/2020 (265 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Thirty-five months after an off-duty police officer killed a pedestrian in a hit-and-run following a drinking bout with colleagues, key details in the case—including how long it took to administer a breathalyzer and what the perpetrator's blood-alcohol level was—remain shrouded in mystery.
And it appears the public is unlikely to ever get answers after the Manitoba Ombudsman’s office ruled this week there is no recourse under freedom-of-information legislation to pry those details from the Winnipeg Police Service.
"We recognize that information about investigations of significant allegations of misconduct by police officers may be considered to be a matter of public interest because it relates to accountability of the police for the impartial administration of justice," reads the Ombudsman's ruling.
"However, the exceptions to access (cited by the WPS) are mandatory and are not subject to any limits based on public interest considerations."
In the fall of last year, former WPS Const. Justin Holz pleaded guilty to dangerous driving causing death in the Oct. 10, 2017 hit-and-run that left Cody Severight, 23, dying on Main Street with a fractured skull and a broken neck.
Holz had been drinking with colleagues at a downtown bar before getting behind the wheel of his personal vehicle and running down Severight, a pedestrian crossing the street, while speeding. He fled from the scene but called 911 to turn himself in 12 minutes later.
Roughly an hour after the 8:05 p.m. crash, Holz's fellow officers reportedly smelled alcohol on him and arrested him for impaired driving.
The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba found there was an unspecified delay in administering a breathalyzer on Holz that night. The police watchdog launched a probe into the conduct of two other WPS officers who had been involved in the investigation, but ultimately cleared them of wrongdoing.
IIU investigators determined a WPS breathalyzer technician on-duty the night of Holz’s arrest said he was uncomfortable performing the test on his colleague, so the commanding officer called in an off-duty technician to perform the test instead—leading to a significant delay in securing a blood-alcohol reading.
Following a plea deal with the Crown, which avoided the case going to trial, Judge Wanda Garreck sentenced Holz to 30 months in prison. He is currently serving his sentence.
In exchange for pleading guilty to dangerous driving causing death, the Crown stayed a number of other charges against Holz, including impaired driving causing death and failure to stop at the scene of a fatal accident.
While some details of what happened that night have trickled into the public record, two key questions remain unanswered: How long did it take to administer a breathalyzer on Holz? What was his blood-alcohol level?
During the sentencing hearing, special Crown prosecutor Bill Bruge—a Saskatchewan lawyer called in to handle the case since the accused was a police officer—said the breathalyzer was administered more than four hours after Holz’s arrest, and by the time it was, he blew under the legal limit.
This is the most detailed information that's been released to the public.
The WPS has repeatedly declined comment when pushed for additional information, and (citing privacy concerns) has declined to release internal reports in response to freedom-of-information requests filed by the Free Press.
The Crown's office has not responded to repeated requests for comment on when the breathalyzer was administered, what the reading was, and why these details were not presented in court. Bruge has refused to provide additional information as well, instead directing the Free Press back to either the WPS or the Crown.
Meanwhile, the IIU has not published a final report on the Holz case and has not issued a press release indicating its investigation into the matter is closed. The Free Press has repeatedly requested an explanation for why no final report has been publicly issued and whether one is coming, but the IIU has ignored all such requests.
"When a charge is laid against an officer, it must also balance the public’s right to know with the accused’s right to a fair trial. A final report is not prepared if a charge is laid by the IIU. The investigative file is forwarded to Manitoba Prosecutions Service for the court proceedings," according to the IIU's website.
The IIU did issue a final report on its investigation into the conduct of the two other WPS officers (neither of whom were charged) involved in the hit-and-run investigation. But absent from the report is any mention of how long it took to administer a breathalyzer on Holz and what his blood-alcohol level was.
Despite the fact Holz's case is no longer before the courts and he's now sitting behind bars, those key details appear destined to remain a closely guarded secret.
Ian Scott, a lawyer and former head of the Special Investigations Unit of Ontario, said in a case involving a police officer who kills someone, where serious concerns have been raised about the handling of the investigation, the public has every right to know such information.
"The length of the delay, the reading once the test is administered, I don’t see how they could skirt around that. The reading is critical. It should have been part of the submissions the Crown read into the court record," Scott said.
"The public should have the right to know that information, and also the judge should have the right to know as well, since alcohol is an aggravating factor in a dangerous driving case. Accordingly, I would have thought the judge would want to know that."
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.