A former Whitehorse RCMP officer is facing either a conditional discharge or a suspended sentence for a sexual assault conviction related to his on-duty conduct.
Const. Stephen Knaack pled guilty to one count of sexual assault on Nov. 10, 2017 for touching a female RCMP employee without her consent in early January 2017.
The woman’s identity is protected by the court under a publication ban.
In Yukon territorial court this morning, Judge Richard Schneider, who appeared via video from Ontario, heard submissions on sentencing in the matter.
Defence lawyer Brendan Miller requested a conditional discharge, arguing the offence was on the lower end of the spectrum for sexual assault.
He also noted that Knaack has no previous criminal history.
But Crown prosecutor Benjamin Flight, who appeared by phone from Nunavut, argued a conditional discharge would not be in the public interest.
He noted the offence had occurred in the workplace, and that RCMP officers hold a special position of power and authority.
He said a suspended sentence would be more appropriate in this case.
Both sentences require a period of probation with conditions, but a suspended sentence would mean the sexual assault charge would go on Knaack’s criminal record.
Judge Schneider has reserved decision on sentencing, saying it is a “nuanced decision that has to be made.”
He added that “it is close to the line,” and he will have to “decide on which side it lands.”
According to the agreed statement of facts, the charge stems from an incident on Jan. 4, 2017.
Knaack and the woman had been engaging in casual conversation and catching up after the holidays when Knaack walked around the woman’s desk to give her a hug.
When she stood up, Knaack told the woman she was standing so that he “could grab her ass.”
He then proceeded to hug her while grabbing her buttocks with his left hand.
Knaack had been on duty in full uniform at the time, and the woman had not consented to the sexual touching.
The next day, she filed a harassment complaint to the RCMP line officer. Both a criminal investigation and internal RCMP process were initiated.
On Jan. 6, Knaack sent an unsolicited email to then-Insp. Archie Thompson admitting to the incident.
He wrote that it was “disreputable conduct for a member and a supervisor,” adding, “There is no tolerance of this in the workplace. There is no excuse for a man to force himself on a woman.”
A victim impact statement written by the woman was read aloud in court this morning.
She wrote “there are not enough words or time” to describe the ways in which the incident has affected her life.
This includes changing her relationships with co-workers and making her feel unsafe in the workplace.
She said she now feels awkward, anxious, distrustful and tense in workplace interactions.
The woman also said she was once followed from work to a private residence where she didn’t feel safe leaving her car.
As well, she has had her integrity questioned, and been told she shouldn’t have reported the incident, she added.
The woman also noted she has been affected by public opinion on the case.
Finally, she said while Knaack was suspended with full pay and has access to limitless resources, she has had to use earned leave time to take time off work.
She has also had to pay $1,725 out of pocket for counselling, leaving her with $680 in costs not covered by benefits.
“I will forever be impacted by this offence,” she concluded.
Flight argued the effect the incident has had on the woman is one of several aggravating factors in the case that call for a suspended sentence.
He also pointed to the need to deter and denounce this type of behaviour. Police officers, he noted, have a higher moral responsibility and knowledge of the consequences for criminal acts.
Additionally, Flight said, while a pre-sentence report was largely positive he was concerned that Knaack had expressed that the matter should have been dealt with internally only, and not used as a “political apparatus”.
“He’s taken the position that he’s exempt from the application of the law,” Flight said.
Miller, meanwhile, said Knaack was “extraordinarily remorseful,” and noted that he admitted to his conduct the day after it was reported without prompting.
He argued his client has already been treated more harshly as an RCMP officer having “suffered through” the internal disciplinary process and the court of public opinion.
As a result of that internal process, on Aug. 24, 2017, Knaack was demoted to a constable.
He was also made ineligible for a promotion for three years and was immediately transferred to a detachment outside of the Yukon.
According to court documents, his financial loss as a result of these sanctions will total at least $32,569.80 before taxes.
Miller also claimed the impact on the victim has less to do with Knaack’s actions than the ramifications afterwards, placing blame on the media attention the case has received.
Finally, Miller argued that giving Knaack a criminal record would be “painting him with a broad brush” and treating him no different than the “most vile” of rapists.
He called Knaack’s actions an “impulse act” and a “stupid joke,” arguing a “fully informed member of the public” would not take issue with a conditional discharge.
But Flight countered there is a difference between Knaack’s case and one of rape.
While a charge of sexual assault can encompass a wide range of offences, he said, in cases of rape, the Crown would have proceeded by indictment rather than summarily.
There are also more serious charges for sexual assault with a weapon, causing bodily harm or threats to a third party and aggravated sexual assault in the Criminal Code of Canada.
Judge Schneider’s written decision on sentencing in the case is expected in two weeks’ time.
Yukon judges were excluded from presiding over the case due to potential conflicts.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada also appointed an independent Crown counsel to avoid any potential conflicts of interest, as Yukon Crown prosecutors work closely with the local RCMP.