A Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer convicted of sexual assault is behind bars after more than eight years, three trials and two appeals, in a landmark case that legal experts say strengthened sexual assault laws where abuse of power among police is at play.
The case of Jane Doe, as the complainant came to be known, galvanized St. John’s to support survivors of sexual assault and triggered at least 10 others to come forward with sexual assault allegations against other on-duty officers in the city.
“It’s been a really long and trauma-inducing road for Jane Doe,” said her lawyer Lynn Moore. “The justice system did what it was supposed to do, but it did it in such a long and perverted way that it’s hard to take solace from it.”
On Tuesday, the Court of Appeal of Newfoundland and Labrador dismissed RNC Constable Douglas Snelgrove’s appeal to set aside his guilty verdict, marking a milestone in the high-profile case that has scandalized the police force and helped reveal a systemic problem of on-duty sexual assault. Constable Snelgrove, who is on unpaid leave from the constabulary, has 60 days to request an appeal of the decision to the Supreme Court of Canada. His lawyer did not respond to an inquiry about whether he plans to appeal. An RNC public complaints process will begin after the criminal process is exhausted.
The assault took place in December, 2014, after Constable Snelgrove drove a 21-year-old woman home in his patrol car around 3 a.m. The young woman was inebriated. Against policy, he did not inform the dispatcher he had anyone in his patrol car. The woman testified that she awoke on the loveseat of her living room naked, to Constable Snelgrove having non-consensual intercourse with her. She had no recollection of consenting.
Jane Doe, now just shy of her 30th birthday, has spent nearly a third of her life reliving the sexual assault in court. She has repeatedly faced defence counsel interrogating her for seeking legal advice during the police investigation, implying she was really only after money. Dalhousie University law professor Elaine Craig called the insinuation unconscionable.
“In terms of the length of time this case took, it is almost unimaginable to consider not only what Jane Doe has had to endure, but the degree of resilience she must have to have continued,” Dr. Craig, who is also research director of the Canadian Centre for Legal Innovation in Sexual Assault Response, said in a statement.
The case is important in terms of the law of consent, Dr. Craig added, because it recognizes that courts must try to understand a complainant’s potential position of vulnerability in assessing whether she was induced into consenting.
“Most importantly, that means that in cases like this, the jury must look at factors such as whether she was intoxicated or impaired relative to an accused, who was not only a police officer but sober, and so used both his position of power and her vulnerability to perpetrate this offence.”
Lise Gotell, an expert in consent law who teaches women’s and gender studies at the University of Alberta, said the case also set a precedent with specific reference to abuse of power by police. The law says there can be no consent where the accused induces the complainant to engage in the activity by abusing a position of trust, power or authority, and the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed a lower court’s ruling in Jane Doe’s case that a jury could consider the power differential.
“You don’t need proof of coercion. It’s enough to understand the personal feelings that are induced by a person being in a position of trust, like a police officer in uniform,” Dr. Gotell said.
Sexual assault is the second most common offence for which police officers are prosecuted, according to a 2021 Canadian study published by Cambridge University Press. When police commit crimes, they are most likely to do it while on duty, the study also found.
Jane Doe’s case has already led to many calls to action, including a Royal Newfoundland Constabulary independent workplace review, an external police watchdog investigation, a police rule about transporting members of the public, and mandatory training for provincial court judges about sexual assault.
“Jane Doe really unleashed a watershed when she made her complaint,” Ms. Moore said. “And I think that she made this province a lot safer.”