BCPP officers are inspected during the 1939 royal visit. (Submitted)

TW Paterson Chronicles: Lost, strayed, stolen, or incompetent?

The Nanaimo Board of Police Commissioners had a full agenda for their monthly meetings in July 1922. Statistics for the previous month showed that 44 cases had been dealt with in police court and $541.50 imposed in fines and costs.

There’d been three arrests, a nation-wide warrant issued for W.H.T. Firth for embezzlement, two bicycles stolen and two bicycles valued at $45 recovered (the report didn’t say whether those stolen and those recovered were one and the same)—and $19.82 found. All told, 32 unspecified complaints were investigated and 42 summonses served (eight of them for other jurisdictions).

Four children “found on the street” in violation of the curfew in effect for juveniles were returned to their homes (likely with a lecture) and two cases of malicious mischief by children were resolved by their parents making restitution and personally chastising the miscreants.

Three long distance phone calls were “attended to regarding men wanted and property stolen,” 27 local incoming and outgoing phone calls had been made, a driving permit had been issued to a minor and one for the purchase of a revolver.

Upon digesting this, Mayor Busby and fellow commissioners Garman and Welch turned to a much more delicate matter. Lawyer V.B. Harrison had called for the dismissal of Magistrate C.H. Beevor-Potts.

Appearing before the commission, and obviously stung by the charge, Potts stated that he’d lived in Nanaimo for 33 years, more than half his lifetime, had “raised a family that in all respects no one need be ashamed of,” and had at all times conducted himself as a respectable citizen. He asked the board to “look behind the scenes in the matter…under discussion.”

He’d been in the police station with Chief Shirras, Const. Tweedhope and B.C. Provincial Police Chief Stephenson when Mr. Hendricks arrived to report that his wife had been assaulted. Potts questioned him and, upon being satisfied that Mrs. Hendricks had been grabbed by the arm, dragged off and indecently assaulted, he’d issued a warrant.

However, upon the accused’s arrest, further information brought out that the case “was not as [it] at first appeared” and he’d set bail “as light as possible” after both the defence and the Crown agreed to trial being set for the following morning. At that time, Harrison, appearing for the Crown, asked for a week’s adjournment. This didn’t suit Potts because of the seriousness of the alleged offence and because he now believed that “the charge against the accused had been more or less trumped up”. Besides, all parties were present.

But he did adjourn for 24 hours. Why Harrison sought a delay isn’t stated although he, too, seems to have had a problem with the allegation of indecent assault. Potts, despite his subsequent misgivings as to the validity of the original charge, stood by his warrant which he’d issued in the presence of three professional policemen, two of them chief constables. “Mr. Harrison said he did not care what precautions I had taken as magistrate and instead of being in court to protect the magistrate [he] did all he could to down me.”

Relations between them worsened when Harrison phoned Potts and “asked me if the charge against the accused was an indictable offence which any lawyer in his sane senses should know. He asked me if I was going to try the case summary and I said I did not know that [until he saw how the case developed]. I said there was no doubt the woman was assaulted as the bruise on her arm showed that. He said if you try the case summary and cannot convict on a charge of indecent assault you can convict on a charge of common assault. I said I am perfectly aware of that and I hung up the receiver.”

He thought Harrison had acted improperly. “In my opinion, gentlemen, the yarn of the woman was concocted to clear herself in the eyes of her husband.” After three witnesses testified for the defence, he’d asked Harrison if he “had anything to say. He seemed surprised that I had stopped further evidence being submitted and I then dismissed the case.

“Mr. Harrison got up and said I was biased. I got my back up and I said, ‘Mr. Harrison, you are not the only lawyer in town who has attempted to discuss a case with me before trial,’ and I should have used the words ‘influenced me.’ He then got up and said his honour was at stake. He says in his letter that I threatened to send for the police…”

Up to this point Potts hadn’t even suggested the dirty “C” word. But that’s exactly where he was headed. With the help of Chief Shirras he was about to argue that it was all a Conspiracy by certain vested interests to unseat him as magistrate.

The prosecutor’s attempt to have him file for common assault in place of the original charge, Potts told the police board, and Harrison’s complaint that he was biased, “got my back up”. After hearing the testimony of three witnesses, Potts had dismissed the charge altogether. Harrison jumped up and declared that his honour was at stake. When he refused to sit down, Potts told him that he’d have a police officer make him do so.

“I ask you, gentlemen,” Potts said in his address to the commissioners, “who are here in the interests of law and order to back me up in this matter. In no case have I shown favour to anyone.”

He turned to a petition presented to the city council calling for his dismissal. “Who are the signers? Are you going to be influenced by men, many of whom are not even residents of the city? I have not seen the petition but I am told J.B. Hodgins heads the list. What has Mr. Hodgins against me? Only that I was appointed to enforce the law of the land and in doing my duty, fined him $1000 which decision he appealed but which decision was upheld in a higher court. Why should I be browbeaten by petitioners, many of whom are not ratepayers of this city? I have taken a solemn oath to do my duty and I have done it without fear or favour.”

The second name on the list was that of Andrew Smith: “Forty motorists appeared before me and among them was Mr. Smith who was fined $25 and costs. He pleaded guilty to going 33 miles an hour over a bridge when by doing so he was not only guilty of violating the Streets Traffic Regulation bylaw but also the Bridge Bylaw.”

He noted that alderman and police commissioner Welch had been in court the day he fined Smith and the others and had expressed the opinion “my decisions were eminently fair. My decisions on that and on all occasions are regulated in accordance with the speed the offender was travelling. Am I to be intimidated because I sat in judgment on men who pleaded guilty?”

Potts also denied that he’d let a man off with a token fine of $1 for illegal parking because he was the son of an acquaintance. To demonstrate his impartiality, he said that several friends had been among 40 motorists recently fined for traffic offenses. “It is up to you, gentlemen, to back me up when I am attacked for doing my duty. I have been at the beck and call of the police, and I have done my duty regardless of who appeared before me.”

Commissioner Garman moved that Harrison’s letter be referred back to city council and that council be informed that the police commissioners had “no jurisdiction in the matter referred to as the administration of the law lay in the hands of the magistrate”. Commissioner Welch seconded the motion.

Police Chief Shirras thought it “very peculiar” that Harrison should have approached city council and the police commissioners when he knew that neither had jursidiction over Potts. “It was like stabbing a man in the back” and not giving him a chance to speak for himself, he said. If Harrison truly believed he had a complaint he should have “appealed to a higher court”.

Previously, Shirras continued, five appeals had been made against Potts’ sentences and all had been upheld. After several accidents and complaints, police, with Potts’ approval, had set out to clock motorists and to charge anyone doing over 23 mph (the speed limit was 20). “Several boys were charged, which was against my grain, [but] I had my duty to perform and I feel my position as keenly as the magistrate… During my term as chief I can only speak in the highest terms of Mr. Potts, who was always willing at any hour of the day or night to assist the police in the discharge of their duties.

“I have looked over the names on the petition and know many of them and I think it is the lowest contemptible kind of a method to get rid of a magistrate… There are 544 names on the petition asking the council to get rid of the magistrate, which action I feel is low and contemptible.”

The police commissioners went on record as being “fully satisfied” with the conduct of Magisrate Potts and Chief Shirras. Case closed.


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