A former Whitehorse RCMP officer who pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a female colleague in 2017 was back in court Jan. 30 as the Crown and defence delivered their submissions for how severely he should be punished.
Const. Stephen Knaack sat silently as Crown attorney Benjamin Flight and defence lawyer Brendan Miller argued whether the one-time corporal should be given a suspended sentence and probation, which would leave him with a criminal record, or a conditional discharge.
Knaack has admitted to inappropriately touching a woman while on-duty and in uniform on Jan. 4, 2017. According to the agreed statement of facts, the woman was at work and seated at her desk when Knaack came in. After exchanging holiday greetings, Knaack reached down to give her a hug and she stated, “Let me stand up so I can give you a real hug.” Knaack said that she was standing up so he could “grab [her] ass” and, when hugging her, grabbed her buttocks with his left hand. The woman said that there was “lots to grab” and Knaack replied, “I like big women.”
“(The woman) did not consent to Cst. Knaack touching her buttocks,” the statement says.
The woman, whose name is protected by a publication ban, filed a complaint against Knaack the next day. He was suspended from duty, charged with sexual assault, demoted from a corporal to a constable and unsuccessfully offered to settle the matter with a peace bond before pleading guilty in November 2017.
In arguing for a suspended sentence, Flight read from the woman’s one-page victim impact statement, in which she detailed how the sexual assault left her feeling “tense,” “awkward,” “isolated” and anxious, particularly at work. Colleagues have told her she shouldn’t have reported the incident, she wrote, and she was followed home one day from work.
As well, the woman wrote that she’s had to take unpaid leave from work to cope and has paid $680 out-of-pocket for therapy related to the impact of the sexual assault.
“I will forever be impacted by this event,” she wrote.
On top of the impact on the victim, Flight said that Knaack’s position as a police officer should be factored into the sentence. Police officers have “higher moral responsibility,” Flight argued, and therefore must be held to a higher standard. Although a conditional discharge may have been appropriate for a civilian, he said, it’s not for a police officer.
Flight acknowledged that Knaack’s pre-sentencing report was “largely positive” and that in it, Knaack expressed remorse. However, Flight expressed concern that Knaack said he thought the incident should have been dealt with via internal process instead of it being used as a “political tool,” suggesting that Knaack thinks he’s “exempt from the application of the law” and can’t appreciate why the matter belongs in court.
Miller, however, argued that Knaack has been punished enough already and that a criminal record would be unfit.
Knaack had no prior criminal history, Miller said, and has already been demoted, lost about $32,000 in docked pay and internal fines, and shown “immense remorse” for his actions.
The Crown itself acknowledged that the sexual assault was on the “lower” end of the spectrum, Miller said, and it would not be in the public interest to “paint him with the same brush” as someone who’s committed a more violent sexual offence.
“It was an impulse act. It was not an offence that was thought out over time…. He quite frankly meant it as a joke and a stupid joke” and a joke that violated the Criminal Code and should have never happened, Miller said.
Throughout his submissions, Miller emphasized the publicity that’s surrounded the case, including the RCMP’s decision to put out a press release on the charge and the heavy media coverage that followed, and the public’s familiarity with the facts.
“This matter has been all over the news,” he said, adding that, based on the victim impact statement, it’s what happened after the offence that appears to have had the greatest impact on the woman.
Judge Richard Scheider reserved his decision, describing the case as “rather nuanced.” He is expected to file a written decision in two weeks.
Contact Jackie Hong at email@example.com