A Lambton County OPP officer plead guilty in Sarnia Superior Court Friday to misusing his power by performing numerous unauthorized searches of personal information while on the job.
Craig Johnston, 34, entered his plea remotely by video before Justice Michael McArthur. He received an absolute discharge, meaning he avoids a criminal record and still has a chance of returning to active duty one day.
Johnston’s ordeal is far from over though as he still faces a Police Services Act prosecution to decide the future of his employment with the OPP. Johnston has been suspended with pay since February 2018 after his infractions were discovered.
During the summer of 2017 Johnston was assigned as a mentor officer through the OPP West Region Police Ethnic and Cultural Exchange program (PEACE) with Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Johnston’s student was an 18 year-old girl from Aamjiwnaang interested in becoming a police officer.
Over the course of July and August Johnston performed several record checks on the girl as well as two male parties, an ex and current boyfriend of the girl. At times this was done in the presence of his young partner and the information shared with her.
Court heard from an agreed statement of facts that the personal information obtained, along with Johnston’s personal advice, were “factors leading to (girl’s) decision to end her relationship (with current boyfriend), believing it was good for her goal of becoming a police officer.”
Record checks by police made for personal reasons and unrelated to a case are illegal under the Criminal Code.
As for why Johnston was looking up the girl in the first place, Defence Lawyer Nick Cake says his client “suspected that a complete background check had not been completed on her prior to her acceptance into the program.”
“He really didn’t know who was seated beside him and who he was involving in his day to day life as a criminal investigator,” says Cake, noting the girl herself “did nothing to raise Const. Johnston’s suspicions. This is not a question of her personal integrity.”
The Crown didn’t buy this excuse, arguing for a conditional discharge as opposed to Cake’s request for an absolute discharge. The former would come with probation conditions.
“If there was a concern with regard to the student the direction was to contact the PEACE coordinator… not to do your own searches,” says Crown Attorney Brian White.
“This isn’t a momentary mistake… This is a repeated mistake,” White says of the four searches Johnston performed on the girl. “Why would you need to continue to screen this student repeatedly?”
As for why the girl’s current and former partners were looked up, Johnston “used the system in her presence both to show her how it works as well as to show her how social media and association on social networks may be a detriment to the police application process,” says Cake.
Cake highlighted positive reviews Johnston received from OPP. He’s described as an “asset to the OPP, meeting expectations and at times exceeding them… without a doubt one of the hardest working and most proactive officers within Lambton County,” read one report from the department.
Cake also says his client has been taking counselling since the incident came to light and “gained insight into his triggers and has an understanding of how his decisions affect others around him.”
White continued to push for the more serious sentence based on Johnston’s position in the community. “The concern here… is the importance of safeguarding the overall integrity, confidentiality and security of the personal information that’s been trusted to police officers,” he says.
The Crown also suggested the collateral damage the incident could have on relationship building between the police and First Nations people.
“The Aamjiwnaang First Nation puts considerable trust in putting forth their Indigenous youth for this program. To respond to that in a way of suspicion toward the youth… and to have this kind of level of mistrust of this youth right from the get-go and then continuous mistrust throughout is concerning,” says White.
Cake denied Johnston’s actions had anything to do with race. “His suspicions were not based upon any biases or any views to do with any of our First Nations generally or specifically as it relates to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation.”
Racial bias was not admitted as fact in the decision.
Johnston spoke briefly before McArthur departed to make his judgement. “I would like to take this opportunity to say I am sorry… My decisions in the summer of 2017 put a dark cloud over my career and my life in general.”
“I’ve taken the time off to really evaluate who I am and how I got to where I was… I want to get back out there, I want to continue to be a police officer,” says Johnston.
Following a brief recess McArthur returned with his decision. “The aggravating factor as raised here by all parties has been the fact that Mr. Johnston did this as part of his police duties,” says the justice.
But he says it’s a situation with “basically no violence or harm intended.” McArthur also noted Johnston’s time in therapy, his obeying of court orders and collateral consequences suffered.
“You’ve basically lived your entire life in the same community where this issue now comes up and undoubtedly that has had its own embarrassment,” says McArthur.
He felt an absolute discharge was in the best interests of both Johnston and the community, adding he thinks the case will send a message to other officers not to try anything similar.
“I can imagine this has been a hard and difficult lesson… You have gone through an ordeal unfortunately of your own making,” McArthur told Johnston as the parties prepared to depart.
“It’s this Court’s impression that you’ve done an exceedingly good job at addressing matters and I want to thank you for the steps you’ve taken in your career and particularly with respect to matters that can assure the people and the public that you might be serving in the continued future,” concluded McArthur.
Alex Kurial, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Independent