The acquittal of Bassam Al-Rawi has drawn widespread condemnation over the last 24 hours for Judge Lenehan's comments that “clearly a drunk can consent.”
The authority of HRM’s Appeals Standing Committee to make rulings on taxi licenses is currently under review.
According to municipal spokesperson Brendan Elliott
, HRM is working with the province to determine if it makes sense for a standing committee of city councillors to make the kinds of decisions like the one that put Bassam Al-Rawi back driving a cab
even while facing sexual assault charges.
Elliott isn’t sure if those talks were specifically prompted by the backlash
against the committee’s August 2015 decision to conditionally reinstate Al-Rawi’s taxi license, but discussions have been ongoing for a while now.
The 40-year-old taxi driver was arrested in May 2015 after being found by police with his pants undone and an unconscious female passenger stripped naked in his backseat. His taxi license was suspended by HRM while the court case proceeded, but three months later the appeals committee went against staff’s recommendation
and overturned that suspension.
Al-Rawi received his taxi license back, under the condition he only drive
a camera in his vehicle.
The unanimous decision was made by councillors after a 20-minute in-camera meeting with Al-Rawi’s lawyer.
This week, Judge Gregory Lenehan
found Al-Rawi not guilty
, even after confirmation by arresting officers of the state of his passenger and the presence of the alleged victim’s DNA on his mouth.
Al-Rawi had no other criminal record, though a search warrant application obtained by CBC in 2015
contains one other reported claim of sexual assault by a different woman against the driver. No charges were laid in that case.
None of the circumstances of Al-Rawi’s case—which along with the judge's decision have caused outrage and anger
over the last 24 hours—made it to the standing committee, says former councillor Gloria McCluskey
“We didn’t hear any of this stuff,” says McCluskey. “I was cross when I read it in the paper after. We had none of that.”
A brief staff report noting the “serious nature” of the charges against Al-Rawi was presented to the committee at its August 5 meeting advising that he was “not sufficiently fit” to hold a taxi license.
McCluskey says a different decision might have been reached if police
or the Crown had presented evidence along with Al-Rawi's defence counsel.
“We were like the judge in this case. We didn’t have much to go on.”
The appeals committee doesn’t have the legal authority to see everything a real court would process, says Elliott, which presents a challenge in ruling on matters that brush against the criminal.
“There are some handcuffs, so to speak, on what information can be provided at that stage of the process...This is the difficulty in a standing committee making essentially quasi-judicial decisions.”
Progressive Conservative candidate Matt Whitman
, then chair of the Appeals committee, says the group made a call based on the best information available to them.
“A big factor in our decision was ‘innocent until proven guilty,’” the Hammonds Plains–St. Margarets councillor says in an email to The Coast.
Al-Rawi is now a free man. But he hasn’t driven a taxi since virtually the moment his license was reinstated two years ago. In September 2015 the driver was unable to provide city hall with the required documentation of who he’d be working for, and consequently, his license was deemed “non-operational.”
He hasn’t been regulated or allowed to drive a taxi since.
Al-Rawi’s license will be reviewed again by city staff once they receive a copy of court transcripts, which will be used to determine whether he—in the words of HRM’s bylaw—is “a driver fit and proper to drive a taxi.”
The definition, explains Elliott, is intentionally ill-defined.
“It’s vague on purpose because we want to have the flexibility to determine for ourselves whether it’s safe for him to be back behind a wheel.”