Obstruction of Officials Can Lead to OHS & Environmental Violations—and Criminal Charges

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Government inspectors may appear in your workplace for a routine inspection or in response to an environmental or safety incident. It’s critical that the company properly deals with inspectors. For example, making it difficult for inspectors to do their job could result in obstruction charges—and in extreme cases, even criminal charges. Here’s a look at a recent case from Newfoundland/Labrador that shows how interfering with government inspectors can quickly spiral out of control and have serious consequences.

THE CASE

What Happened: To investigate complaints of illegal fishing on a pond, Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officers conducted surveillance and saw a man leave a vessel carrying a bucket that looked heavy. Believing that the bucket might contain illegal fish, DFO officers parked on the road on which the man lived. When he pulled onto the street, the officers turned on their emergency lights. The man raced to his house, honking his horn to alert his father of the officers’ presence. The DFO officers parked in the man’s driveway and told him to “come here.” The man’s father came out of the house, took off his jacket, raised his fists and came at one of the officers. Fearing for their safety, the DFO officers left without properly examining the bucket’s contents and returned to the pond. They examined the father’s fishing nets and decided to seize them as evidence of a violation of the Fisheries (General) Regulations. A crowd gathered, so they called in the RCMP. The father appeared and again took off his jacket and raised his fists at the officers. He had to be restrained. The man and his father were both charged with obstruction. The man was also charged with fleeing a peace officer and the father with assaulting a peace officer in violation of the Criminal Code.

What the Court Decided: The NL Provincial Court convicted the father of both charges but only convicted the man of fleeing a peace officer, acquitting him of the obstruction charge.

The Court’s Reasoning: As to the criminal charges, the court explained that a flight charge involves a deliberate attempt by a person to elude a peace officer, such as a DFO officer. The man saw the DFO vehicle’s emergency lights go on when he turned onto his street. But instead of pulling over as soon as reasonably possible as required by the law, he sped to his house in an attempt to get away from them. Thus, he was guilty of the flight charge. Assault includes an attempt to or threat of applying force to someone else and assaulting a peace officer in the course of executing his duties is a crime. While the DFO officers were seizing the father’s nets as part of their duties, he came at them in a menacing manner and had to be restrained. Thus, the father was guilty of assault.

But the court reached different conclusions on the obstruction charges against the man and his father. The court explained that obstruction means making it more difficult for a peace officer to do his job and can be either physical or verbal. In the driveway, although the man was belligerent and abusive to the DFO officers, he didn’t threaten them or attempt to prevent them from examining the bucket. Thus, the man wasn’t guilty of obstruction. However, the father’s threatening actions in the driveway did prevent the officers from thoroughly examining the bucket and so he was guilty of obstruction [R. v. Keough, [2011] N.J. No. 3, Jan. 4, 2011].

ANALYSIS

Companies often deal with the same government inspectors on a regular basis and may develop a relationship—good or bad—with them. In the Keough case, the man and his father knew one of the DFO officers and believed that the officer was “terrorizing” their family and trying to “set them up” for environmental violations. Because they thought that they were being targeted and essentially framed, the men clearly overreacted when confronted by the DFO officers. As a result, they ended up with criminal records. The lesson: When dealing with government inspectors, it’s critical that you keep a cool head no matter what you may think of the inspectors’ intentions. At the end of the day, if the inspectors issue what you believe to be a “bogus” order or violation, there are ways to challenge that action without getting into a fistfight.