An Ontario judge has sentenced a white Toronto Police officer who beat a Black teenager with a metal pipe when he was off duty to nine months in jail, explaining in his reasons that “the racialized context within which the offence took place cannot be ignored.”
Ontario Superior Court Justice Joseph Di Luca delivered his sentence to Constable Michael Theriault in an Oshawa courtroom on Thursday morning, a year after the trial.
In June, he convicted Constable Theriault of assault in the attack on Dafonte Miller, who was chased down a street in Whitby, Ont., and beaten by Constable Theriault and his younger brother Christian in December, 2016. (Justice Di Luca acquitted the younger brother on the grounds that he may have acted in self-defence.) Charges against Mr. Miller laid after the incident were dropped.
While the maximum sentence for assault is five years imprisonment, the Crown sought 12 to 15 months, while the defence had asked for a conditional sentence or discharge, which would mean no time in jail.
Any sentence that didn’t involve jail time “is not appropriate in this case,” Justice Di Luca said. “This is a case that requires a very strong deterrent message." Constable Theriault will also be placed on probation for 12 months and face a five-year weapons ban.
Constable Theriault’s role as a police officer made the offence more serious, the judge said, given the frequency of offences committed by police officers against racialized people, especially Black people.
“The Black community has suffered a history of inequality as a result of systemic and overt racism,” he said. “It has affected the relationship between police and the Black community.”
Julian Falconer, Mr. Miller’s lawyer, praised the judge for highlighting race in his decision.
“I cannot recall a more penetrating analysis of the role that racism plays in a police encounter," Mr. Falconer said at a media conference after the hearing.
He said Mr. Miller, who became a father three months ago, is eager to move on with his life and no longer wanted to speak about the assault. In a victim impact statement read in court at Constable Theriault’s sentencing hearing in September, Mr. Miller described the loss of trust he had with police.
“I was handcuffed and charged, while Michael Theriault walked away completely free. No one questioned him. Only I was worthy of suspicion. I believe that this was because of the colour of my skin. Because of the colour of my skin, Michael Theriault could have got away with what he did to me,” he said.
Constable Theriault was taken into custody after receiving his sentence, but soon after released on bail. Both the Crown and defence have appealed his conviction, and his jail sentence will not begin until those appeals are dealt with.
He was suspended with pay after his arrest in 2017, but now that he has been sentenced to jail time, he will no longer receive pay. He faces a disciplinary hearing from the Toronto Police Service. An independent investigation by the Waterloo Regional Police Service is under way into whether the Toronto Police Service failed to properly report the assault to the Special Investigations Unit. Mr. Falconer has also launched a civil suit against the Toronto Police Service and Durham Regional Police service over their handling of the case.
The altercation between the Theriaults and Mr. Miller began early one morning in December, 2016. Mr. Miller maintains he and two friends were walking down a residential street when the brothers confronted them, chased him and beat him, but Justice Di Luca agreed with the brothers' version of events: that Mr. Miller and his friends were “car hopping” that morning, entering parked vehicles to steal valuables. When the brothers caught him and a friend in their parents' truck, they chased him on foot and beat him with their fists and feet.
Later, Constable Theriault struck Mr. Miller with a pipe and Mr. Miller fled to the front door of a home seeking help. While he was pounding on the door and crying out to call 911, Constable Theriault struck him again in the face with the pipe – it was this strike and the ones that followed after Mr. Miller had surrendered that resulted in the assault conviction. Mr. Miller suffered many injuries, included a ruptured left eye, which has since been replaced with a prosthetic.
Although blood poured from Mr. Miller’s eye when Durham police arrived, officers arrested him, allowing Constable Theriault to place the handcuffs on Mr. Miller’s wrists “like he was some kind of trophy,” Mr. Falconer said. The charges were dropped and Constable Theriault and his brother were charged in July, 2017, with aggravated assault and obstruction of justice, more than half a year later.
Neither the Theriault family nor defence lawyer Michael Lacy, who represents Constable Theriault, commented on the sentence.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.