MLA Shannon Phillips cites Charter right violations in Lethbridge police search lawsuit

Two Alberta police officers have been temporarily demoted over unauthorized surveillance of a former environment minister and people she met with to discuss a controversial plan to restrict off-road vehicles in a new park. Then-Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks Shannon Phillips speaks at a press conference after a meeting with provincial and territorial environment ministers in Ottawa on Thursday, June 28, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle. Patrick Doyle, The Canadian Press

Lethbridge-West MLA Shannon Phillips is suing several members of the Lethbridge Police Service, saying her Charter rights were violated by illegal and unwarranted searches of police databases.

The Statement of Claim, filed earlier this week at the Court of King’s Bench in Lethbridge, says Phillips has suffered as a result of the actions of at least three officers and one civilian employee and the lack of action by the chief of police at the time.

“Phillips has been willfully or negligently caused legal, personal, psychological and emotional harm as a direct result of each or all of the violations of her privacy,” the claim said.

The claim said she is seeking $400,000 in damages for suffering pain, loss of reputation and PTSD. It also states she is unable to trust her private information is safe in the hands of law enforcement and does not know how her illegally accessed information was used.

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None of the claims have been proven in court. Phillips has asked for the case to be tried before a judge and jury at the courthouse in Lethbridge.

The searches were conducted between January and November in 2018, when Phillips was Alberta’s environment minister while the NDP was governing the province.

Phillips found out about the searches of a database called Niche on Dec. 6, 2020, when she received the results of a Freedom Of Information and Protection of Privacy request.

Named in the lawsuit are Const. Joel Odorski, Const. Derek Riddel, Const. Ross Bond, civilian employee Allyson Dunsmore, former chief Robert Davis and current Lethbridge Police Service Chief Shahin Mehdizadeh, along with a Jane Doe and John Doe.

The lawsuit claims the first search happened Jan. 9, 2018, when Dunsmore is alleged to have looked up a police file from 2015 that the lawsuit said was sensitive in nature and in which Phillips was the complainant.

The legal action claims the next search happened a month later on Feb. 9, 2018, when Bond is alleged to have searched Phillips name three times in relation to two police files: one from 2013 where she was a witness and one from 2016 where she was the complainant.

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The lawsuit said after reading the contents for his own personal purposes, Bond allegedly “used the information for non-law enforcement purposes of which only one of more of the defendants have knowledge, as all such actions were concealed from Phillips.”

The third search happened on March 5, 2018, when the lawsuit claimed Odorski looked up the same 2015 police file that had been searched two months before.

The lawsuit said he then disclosed the confidential 2015 information with third parties unknown to Phillips, “some of whom were know to Const. Odorski to be opponents of Phillips and her official duties and actions as a sitting MLA and environment minister.” Dunsmore is alleged to have done the same.

The statement of claim said Phillips had no involvement with anyone at the Lethbridge Police Service on the day of the searches. On that day in March, she was attending a climate change conference in Edmonton.

The last search happened much later in the year. The lawsuit said on Nov. 29, 2018, Riddel looked up information on Phillips while on duty assigned to the bail office.

In all instances, the lawsuit said none of the defendants had any legitimate law enforcement purpose to search Phillips’ information and were, in fact, prohibited by law from doing so.

The lawsuit said the officers and the civilian employee used the information for non-law enforcement purposes.

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They are accused of abusing their authority and invaded the minister’s privacy, knowing it would “be personally, psychologically and emotionally harmful to Phillips.”

Phillips claims the searches were in violation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms: specifically, Section 7 that deals with life, liberty and security of person, and Section 8, which says everyone has the right to be secure against unreasonable search or seizure.

Former Lethbridge Police Service chief Rob (Robert) Davis was named in the lawsuit, which said it was his job to supervise and prevent his employees from committing misconduct.

“Chief Davis knew or ought to have known that, at all material times, there was a culture of overt and pervasive non-compliance at the LPS as it related to access to LPS Databases,” the suit said.

The lawsuit said he also should have been aware that Phillips was a particular target for police misconduct due to her public role.

“There was a known vocal partisan political opposition by LPS officers towards the policies of the government to which Phillips belonged, including but not limited to environmental protection politics.”

At the time, there was opposition to a plan to phase out and restrict off-road vehicles in the popular Castle Provincial Park wilderness area in southwestern Alberta.

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The lawsuit said Davis should have been aware the 2015 file would be particularly harmful to Phillips and warranted additional protective measures. The lawsuit did not detail what was in the 2015 file.

The statement of claim also said he should have been aware the officers, Dunsmore and the John and Jane Doe, “routinely failed or refused to comply with their legal duties relating to access to LPS databases for individual personal reasons.”

Davis, who is from Ontario, left his role in 2019 to be the chief of police in Brantford, Ont.

The John and Jane Doe are two people who are not named, but the lawsuit said they “were at all material times LPS officers or civilian employees who knowingly participated or aided and abetted some or all of the defendants’ unlawful conduct.”

The lawsuit said they were recipients of the 2015 file, either directly or indirectly, from Odorski and Dunsmore, and engaged in misfeasance and breaches of privacy “by unlawfully using or publishing the 2015 LPS file information knowing such conduct would cause harm to Phillips.”

The lawsuit said the exact details of their misconduct are known to some of the defendants but have been concealed from Phillips.

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In the lawsuit, Phillips is seeking a combined $400,000 in damages along with punitive damages against each defendants to be determined in court, and legal fees.

After Phillips received the FOIP results in 2020, the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT) launched several investigations.

This the latest in a series of legal steps Phillips has taken since finding out about the unauthorized police surveillance.

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