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Correctional officer’s drug bust gives employer just cause for dismissal

Arrest violated standard of professional conduct, code of ethics, collective agreement
Powered By Canadian HR ReporterWorkplace - HR Policies||Written By Jeffrey Smith
Correctional officer’s drug bust gives employer just cause for dismissal

An adjudicator has upheld the dismissal of a New Brunswick corrections officer who was found with a marijuana-growing operation and weapons in his home.

Harold Peterson was a correctional officer at the Atlantic Institution in Renous, N.B. (AIR), a maximum-security institution operated by Corrections Canada (CSC). He first became a correctional officer in 1999 at a provincial youth centre in Miramichi, N.B. Over 12 years there, he was never disciplined but was exposed to assaults, inmates who harmed themselves, hangings, and a fire.

Peterson left the provincial system to work for CSC in 2011, first working at another facility before moving to AIR after a use-of-force incident that caused anxiety and sleeplessness.

He didn’t seek medical treatment for his issues, but started calling in sick from his depression, anxiety and a back injury he suffered in a car accident.

Peterson was told to bring in doctors’ notes for all his absences and was referred to the employee assistance program, but he didn’t go. He did some Internet research and concluded he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but a doctor he consulted didn’t believe that was true.

Peterson also began trying marijuana to alleviate his symptoms, against his doctor’s advice. He found it helped so he bought seeds and planted them on a neighbour’s property, without informing the neighbour.

On Feb. 24, 2014, Miramichi police executed a search warrant of Peterson’s house. They found dried marijuana throughout the house totalling 4.22 kilograms. They also found grow-op equipment and potting soil, along with strings to support the plants hanging from the basement ceiling.

Police also found several large hockey bags, a common method of transporting marijuana. There were also unsecured weapons located.

Peterson was uncooperative with police and refused to reveal how many firearms he had in the house. He admitted to smoking marijuana but had no prescription for it. He was arrested and released with conditions.

The arrest was covered in the local newspaper, which stated Peterson was a corrections officer and included photos of seized marijuana in buckets with AIR labels.

AIR’s assistant warden was informed by police of Peterson’s arrest — Peterson never told CSC himself — and informed the acting warden. They put Peterson on paid leave and then suspended him without pay on March 7, 2014, while a disciplinary investigation was conducted.

CSC’s investigation included interviews of the arresting officers, Peterson, and some of his co-workers. Peterson was told several times the investigation was separate from any criminal investigation, but Peterson said little on his lawyer’s advice.

He said he suffered from PTSD and chronic back pain, but provided no information other than saying he had seen a psychiatrist. CSC didn’t search for more information as it felt Peterson was obligated to provide it to support his claims.

When the investigation was completed, Peterson was given a draft copy but refused to acknowledge it. His criminal trial was dragging on and CSC was finding it harder to stay in touch with Peterson, so it decided to terminate his employment on Jan. 7, 2015.

The termination letter stated the investigation determined Peterson’s actions were inconsistent with his role as a peace officer. His admitted drug use, improperly stored firearms, and dishonesty violated CSC’s standards of professional conduct, the value and ethics code for the public sector, and the standards of conduct outlined in the collective agreement between the Treasury Board and the Union of Canadian Correctional Officers.

It also said CSC couldn’t trust him working with firearms or working with inmates with similar offences who were aware of the arrest, and the trial damaged CSC’s reputation and public trust.

Peterson grieved the dismissal, claiming his PTSD and other mental issues weren’t given consideration in CSC’s decision to terminate. He also pointed to his clean disciplinary record and said CSC should have looked at possible positions where he could work without needing a firearm or direct contact with inmates.

Adjudicator notes lengthy career
Adjudicator Margaret Shannon noted that while Peterson had a “lengthy career in the world of corrections,” he had been an employee of CSC for less than four years. Peterson’s arrest was a serious matter, particularly since the nature of the charges — drugs and firearms — related directly to his correctional officer duties, where he dealt with individuals with similar charges and which required a high level of trust and responsibility.

Shannon found CSC’s investigation was a proper one and involved interviews with all pertinent people such as the police and co-workers. If the investigation didn’t cover all the bases, it was because of Peterson’s refusal to co-operate.

While it was his right to not answer questions because of the separate criminal matter — as his lawyer advised him — it gave CSC less to work with when making its disciplinary decision, she said.

Shannon also found that CSC was unaware of any medical issues, as Peterson only briefly mentioned mental health issues but didn’t provide any further information — and he hadn’t actually been diagnosed with PTSD.

In addition, Peterson was fully aware that cultivating marijuana was illegal and his job would be at risk if he was caught. The fact he tried to hide what he was doing by secretly planting marijuana on a neighbour’s property demonstrated he knew the deal, said Shannon.

Peterson also hadn’t shown any remorse and took no steps to acquire marijuana legally — which he could have if he needed it for medical purposes, she said.

Combined with the negative media spotlight it brought on CSC, it was serious enough that demotion or discipline wouldn’t do the trick. CSC had just cause for dismissal.

“Through his actions, (Peterson) made himself unsuitable to be a (correctional officer)… (He) was well aware of the implications of his illegal activities if they were discovered,” said Shannon.

“His attempts to disguise them is proof of this and brings not only his suitability to be a (correctional officer) into question but clearly indicates that the employer’s trust in him was not warranted, which renders the continued employment relationship untenable.”

For more information see:

• Peterson v. Deputy Head (Correctional Service of Canada), 2017 CarswellNat 1730 (Can. Pub. Service Lab. Rel. Bd.).

Jeffrey Smith is the editor of Canadian Employment Law Today. For more information, visit www.employmentlawtoday.com.