Sunday, December 29, 2013

When the police don't know a law they're supposed to uphold .....

Hundreds searched while fully naked, officer admits

Strip -search method used by Toronto constable against police policy as set out by top court

Liam Casey
Staff Reporter
Sunday, December 29, 2013
Constables Sasa Sljivo, right, and Tim Lee, arrested Lerondo Smith on July 9, 2012 and asked him to remove his clothing until he was fully naked. (Metroland Media Toronto File Photo)

A Toronto police officer recently testified in court that he has stripped “hundreds” of people completely naked as part of routine searches, despite police policy stating that must not be done.

Constable Sasa Sljivo’s shocking admission came during a trial for Lerondo Smith, charged with drug trafficking and breaching conditions.

To strip someone completely naked is against rules laid out by the Supreme Court in 2001. Any evidence discovered during a fully naked search can be deemed a breach of charter rights and tossed from court, thereby jeopardizing a case.

The Star sent an extensive email to police with a dozen questions about Sljivo’s testimony. Police spokesman Mark Pugash told the Star that “investigators are looking into this case. We will take whatever action is necessary.”

Repeated attempts to reach Sljivo were unsuccessful.

On December 13, the Crown dropped the charges against Smith when the judge tossed the evidence — 6.5 grams of crack that Smith had allegedly stashed in his buttocks — on the grounds of unlawful arrest, stemming from “significant inconsistencies in police testimony.”

While the strip search didn’t weigh in her decision, Justice Bonnie Croll did voice concern about it.

Sljivo, a beat cop in 22 Division, told court on December 11 he had Smith strip naked after being arrested on July 9, 2012. He then said this was standard procedure.

“In the hundreds of (strip) searches, sir, it’s been your practice to have the prisoner be completely naked?” asked Smith’s lawyer, Erec Rolfe.

“Yes,” Sljivo replied.

The officer said he was unaware of the court case that laid out the proper procedure.

Under questioning by Crown attorney Maryse Nassar, Sljivo confirmed his strip-search method and the reasons for it.

“So that there’s never any concealment method,” he replied. “If somebody is wearing an extra-long shirt, per se, that might cover an area where we need to check and we might miss something.”

“You indicated you had done about 200 strip searches or did you say —”

“Hundreds,” Sljivo said, interrupting Nassar.

“I’m sorry, OK,” Nassar said. “Have you ever done it any other way in all the strip searches you’ve done?”

“No,” Sljivo said.

He told court he was trained by his coach officer, a police mentor, to strip-search people fully naked.

The Supreme Court put in place its rules so as to maintain a suspect’s dignity and to prevent a demeaning and humiliating experience in violation of charter rights.

Toronto police adopted those rules in its procedure information sheet regarding “searches of person.”

Its policy states exactly how “level 3” searches should be conducted: in a private room with closed doors, with officers of the same sex, and without videotaping. Once a piece of clothing is removed, the person is searched along with the clothing; then it must be replaced and the next piece removed, and so on.

In April, a judge threw out a case against a 12-year-old boy who brought a gun to an elementary school because he had been stripped naked after his arrest.

Sljivo and Constable Tim Lee arrested Smith for being too close to the intersection of Lake Shore Boulevard West and Islington Avenue in violation of conditions from a previous arrest.

The officers told court they recalled an image of Smith on the “bail board” at 22 Division. They arrested Smith, then took him into the station, where they received authorization from their boss to conduct a “level 3” strip search, which is normal for those joining the general population in jail.

“It’s for officer safety to make sure Mr. Smith isn’t carrying any further weapons or any other evidence,” Sljivo told court.

The officers asked Smith to remove clothing, which they searched, until he was completely naked. At that point Smith pulled 6.5 grams of crack from his buttocks, Sljivo testified. The officers then told Smith to spread his buttocks to make sure he wasn’t hiding anything else, Sljivo told court. Smith was charged with trafficking and breach of conditions.

Rolfe, Smith’s lawyer, called the officer’s testimony “very problematic.”

“It’s shameful that more than a decade after the Supreme Court ruling police are still doing this,” he told the Star. “It’s a humiliating procedure. I hope this case results in a change in police training.”

In an email, the Star asked Pugash whether Sljivo or Lee have ever been disciplined, whether the completely naked strip searches are pervasive, and what strip-search training is given to officers. It’s also not known if Sljivo’s “hundreds” of improper strip searches have jeopardized other cases.

Pugash did not answer those specific questions.

The force has come under fire this year about the sheer number of strip searches being conducted. The police board now requires the chief to report the number of “level 3” and “level 4” strip searches annually.

lcasey@thestar.ca

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