Judge acquits Winnipeg police officer of assault despite not believing parts of testimony

A Winnipeg police officer has been acquitted of assault after a judge said key factors in the Crown’s case left him with reasonable doubt as to what took place the night of the incident.

Patrol Sgt. Sean Cassidy, a member of the police service for more than 20 years, was charged in January 2019 for an incident two years earlier, when a 32-year-old man said Cassidy punched and kneed him while trying to help other officers arrest him.

The man, Kenneth James Cote, then 32, was released without being charged and then sought medical attention.

He submitted a complaint to the Winnipeg Police Service about a year after the assault took place, alleging the assault caused a number of head injuries and left him with permanent hearing loss. 

The Independent Investigation Unit of Manitoba probed the incident, and found there were reasonable and probable grounds to believe a criminal offence occurred. 

In his decision delivered Monday, Provincial Court Judge Sidney Lerner said while he did not believe key parts of Cassidy’s version of events, testimony presented by witness officers left him with reasonable doubt, leaving him no choice but to acquit. 

‘Versions of the event diverge dramatically’

The incident in question happened the early morning hours of March 28, 2017. 

During the trial last year, court heard that Cote and an employee were in La Salle, Man. — just south of Winnipeg — dropping off flyers for his business. 

Cassidy was returning home from work when he spotted Cote’s vehicle stopped at a street corner, and became suspicious about it because of recent break-ins in the area. 

“It is at this point that the versions of the event diverge dramatically,” said Provincial Court Judge Sidney Lerner in his decision delivered Monday. 

Cassidy told the court that a dangerous chase ensured, with Cote pursuing him on the Perimeter Highway. Cote, on the other hand, testified that the opposite was true, and he was the one being pursued.  

Cote testified that on the highway, Cassidy began swerving back and forth in front of him, and seemed to be trying to prevent him from passing. Video evidence of this was presented at trial. 

Cassidy, for his part, told the court he was trying to prevent Cote from pulling alongside him out of fear he might have a firearm. 

The chase ended on St. Mary Avenue in Winnipeg after Cote pulled over. Cote said he pulled over on his own, while Cassidy and other police officers who were there said he pulled over because of police. 

There, Cote testified that once out of his vehicle, police forced him to the ground. That’s when he heard someone running toward him, and said he started getting punched and kneed in the face. 

At first, Cote said he couldn’t see who was doing it because someone was putting a knee on his head. But after the knee came off, he said he saw a uniformed officer pushing his assailant away from him, and that the person striking him was not in uniform. 

Lerner noted that the evidence presented during Cassidy’s trial indicated that the accused was not in full uniform the night of the incident, and that it’s clear that Cote was talking about Cassidy. 

During his testimony, Cassidy told the court that on St. Mary’s Avenue, he was confronted by the person he believed was chasing him, and that it was necessary to strike Cote in the course of the arrest. 

Meanwhile, Lerner noted that the other police officers who were at the scene of the arrest, who were witnesses in the Crown’s case, said there was nothing untoward about Cassidy’s use of force. 

Judge questions accused’s testimony

Judge Lerner said he did not believe Cassidy’s version of what unfolded in La Salle and on the Perimeter Highway. He also said it was “undisputed” that Cassidy charged toward Cote ahead of the other officers. 

However, he said the testimony of the witness officers had a significant impact on the Crown’s case against Cassidy. By using them in their case, the Crown was asking the court to accept their version of events when it comes to Cassidy’s use of force, and to call Cote’s allegations into question, Lerner said. 

“If, as the Crown proposes, the complainant is not to be believed on this point … a fact so unmistakable and which the complainant testified so definitively, then the complainant’s evidence as a whole is called into question,” Lerner said. 

“In the end result, I am left in a position of uncertainty as to who and what is to be believed in this case.” 

As a result, Lerner said Cassidy must be acquitted. 

This is the second time Cassidy has been acquitted of criminal charges in the last two months. 

In March, a judge found him not guilty of using his position in the photo radar unit to block his own speeding ticket from being issued. 

In that case, Manitoba provincial court Judge Cindy Sholdice said due to inconsistencies with some of the witness testimony, she was left with reasonable doubt about Cassidy’s guilt.

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service said Cassidy has been suspended without pay since March 2020, but will be back at work soon following his acquittal.