Assault charge dropped against N.S. domestic violence complainant

·4 min read

A Nova Scotia provincial court judge has dismissed an assault charge against a domestic violence complainant whose arrest and jailing was denounced by the premier as "completely unacceptable."

The Crown told the court Wednesday it believed Serrece Winter could be convicted for assaulting a Halifax Regional Police officer, but that it was not in the public interest to proceed with the matter.

The Dartmouth woman was accused of kicking a female officer after being placed in lockup for failing to show up in court to testify against her ex-boyfriend on domestic assault related charges last year.

The alleged assault against the officer occurred as police strapped Winter to a restraint chair. A trial had been scheduled for June 2021.

"I am not sure if I'm ever going to stop being afraid of [police] sirens, but it's a big relief to know that I don't have to wait until June to decide what my fate is going to be while they run around making a mockery of the system," said Winter, 45.

Her ordeal at Halifax police headquarters was roundly criticized by an academic, women's justice advocates and politicians, including Premier Stephen McNeil, who said the treatment of Winter showed "the lack of understanding by so many people of the terror of this terrible, terrible crime."

Nearly a year to the day

Winter had been scheduled to testify against her 61-year-old ex on Nov. 20, 2019, on 14 charges including choking, assault causing bodily harm and unlawful confinement.

Halifax Regional Police video/Screen capture
Halifax Regional Police video/Screen capture

Instead of going to court, Winter told CBC News she was at home drinking alcohol, trying to find the courage to testify against someone she feared. A judge granted a Crown attorney's request for an arrest warrant when Winter didn't show up in court.

She was picked up by police just as the courthouse was closing.

Within moments of entering the booking area, Winter — who is part Black, part Indigenous — told officers "they put the victim in jail" and expressed fear of racists in the lockup. Winter also explained she has mental health conditions. Officers yelled at her to sit down.

Locked in a cell, she started self-harming by pounding her head against a cement wall before clutching her body and crying.

A struggle ensued as Winter was dragged out of the cell and strapped into a restraint chair by seven officers.

Surveillance video shows just 13 minutes passed between Winter challenging her arrest in the booking area and the moment officers strapped her into the chair.

She and her lawyer, Tony Amoud, shared the video with CBC News in hopes of drawing attention to what Winter said was a re-traumatizing experience and excessive use of force.

The Public Prosecution Service and Halifax Regional Police declined to be interviewed.

Amoud said he was disappointed and troubled when the Crown stated Wednesday it believed Winter could be found guilty of assault if the matter were to proceed.

"Watch the video. Tell me if you think that's what happened," he said.

"What message does that send about the Crown and its view about this case involving a domestic violence complainant?"

Robert Short/CBC
Robert Short/CBC

The judge commended Amoud's work on the file Wednesday.

"This is justice operating behind the scenes, and you should be recognized for your efforts in this matter and the attention in which you received," said Borden.

Justice minister calls for review

Winter said she has suffered violence at the hands of boyfriends for many years. In 2015, she was placed in the high-risk domestic violence program, which monitors victims who are at a high risk of being murdered or seriously injured by a partner.

She is now seeking an apology from police and the prosecution. She's also filed a complaint with the police board.

The province's justice minister is looking for a review of the case. Mark Furey said he has also instructed his staff to look into what powers he has to review the situation.

"We need to change the outcome," said Furey, adding the surveillance video from police lockup shows "we have a lot of work to do."

Winter said she hopes her story will change the situation for domestic violence victims.

"I would hope that nobody has to go through that again when they've already been abused," she said.

The 14 domestic violence charges against Winter's ex were dropped earlier this month.

He is due in court next month on five new charges, including choking and uttering threats, after an alleged incident involving Winter on Dec. 10, 2019

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