Ninety-one-year-old Larry Sommerfield is heading to his judgment hearing in small claims court in just under a month, confident that he’s presented an open and shut case in his suit against the RCMP.
“It’s black and white, just look at the evidence,” said Sommerfield, who is representing himself and spent four years filing freedom of information requests, researching, making detailed notes, and building his case in which he claims RCMP officers unduly destroyed his antique gun collection following a fire at his Thornhill property in March of 2010.
He finally got his day in court beginning last September. Following several days of testimony spread out to December, judge Terence Wright is scheduled to make his ruling at the end of the month, almost five years to the date of the incident. The witness list included Sommerfield, a tenant and RCMP officers who were on duty during and after the fire. Sommerfield is asking for just over $5,000 in damages, the amount he says the guns are worth.
“I didn’t think when I started out it was going to drag out for over four years,” said Sommerfield, as he lowered his body into the witness stand in Courtroom One at the Terrace courthouse Sept. 24, 2014 to give his version of the events.
The fire, caused by an old electrical cord, engulfed the backside of his trailer in flames, one of several buildings on the property, around 3 p.m. on March 1, 2010. Sommerfield was asleep after staying up late watching science shows on his satellite television. He awoke to the flames and got out of the building, but not before suffering severe burns on his arm. Firefighters and RCMP arrived shortly thereafter.
While he was in hospital, first in Terrace and then in Vancouver for over a week, RCMP officers confiscated and subsequently destroyed his firearm collection, which had been displayed in the portion of the trailer that suffered the fire. Counsel representing the minister of justice, which is the defendant for an action against the RCMP, denies Sommerfield’s charges, maintaining the guns had been stored unlawfully, and, in any event, were too damaged by the fire to be worth anything. The defendant maintains that the officers acted in good faith, and also maintains that Sommerfield signed a release allowing them to take control of the guns.
Sommerfield disagrees. He believes the guns were salvageable, and he has argued in court that since the guns and bullets were stored separately, and there were bars on the windows of the property’s building, they were not stored illegally. He also said that he couldn’t have signed the release when he was in the hospital, as his arm was burned and he wasn’t able use it.
“I was mislead,” said Sommerfield. He said police told him the guns were damaged beyond repair, and “I was dragged away to the ambulance before I could check anything… I took them at their word.” He said that police told him because the guns were stored illegally, he could be charged if he didn’t do what they said and, as such, let them take the guns.
“It was wrong for the police to take them, because they were stored properly,” said Sommerfield of the guns, noting the RCMP “could have taken them for safe keeping” instead of destroying them. Sommerfield said his evidence shows that the firearms code “clearly states” that “a gun that cannot shoot is not a firearm” and that since his guns could not shoot – either because they needed repairs or had parts removed and in different buildings – they were not firearms.
During trial, he painstakingly presented his evidence (often haphazardly and, at times, testing the ever-patient court by introducing new evidence that needed to be processed before court could continue or returning to evidence that had already been discussed, drawing nudges from the judge for Sommerfield to keep on track). That evidence included photographs of the guns as they looked after the fire, covered in soot and charred, saying “they look damaged but they’re not … Same as a used car, if it’s covered in mud you’re not going to get as much as if you wash it.”
Meanwhile, lawyers for the RCMP presented evidence that questioned Sommerfield’s claims and included audio of a taped witness statement given by Sommerfield the day of the fire, in which he instructs the RCMP to take the guns.
“I cannot remember saying anything like that,” said Sommerfield, after listening to the tape.
“Why would I say it? Guns can be used later for other things… I would never have said anything like that,” he continued before acknowledging that he did remember the taped conversation, just not the part at the end about the guns. “I would say that was added later,” he said. Voices “can be imitated.”
Sommerfield’s dogged determination in pursuing his case for the most part on his own – and the sheer amount of court time his civil suit was given – is rare in British Columbia. The average time required for a civil claims case in the province for the 2013/14 fiscal year was 50 minutes, according to information provided by the ministry of justice. Sommerfield’s four-day trial and the lead up to that trial went well beyond that.
“Well, they spent a lot of money on it,” said Sommerfield, chuckling.
Between 2009 and 2014, there were 267 new small claims cases in Terrace, representing 133 sitting hours, so about two hours of court time each on average. The amount of required court time for a small claims case depends “on the claims that are being made,” according to the ministry. “Factors that determine how long a small claims case lasts at trial include the number of claims and the plaintiff’s ability to provide evidence to support the claims (and) the defendant’s ability to respond to the claims and provide the defendant’s own evidence.”
Many cases are settled in arbitration or early on in the small claims process. And while some choose to exercise their right to a public defender or hire a lawyer, like 77 per cent of small claims litigants last year, Sommerfield represented himself, saying he never considered hiring a lawyer to argue his case for him. He did, however, receive some legal help at the beginning of the process from his wealthy brother in Vancouver, he said.
“I figured I could handle this myself because I had enough evidence,” said Sommerfield. “I’m not that great you know, I mean, the problem is this was the first time I was in it (representing himself in court), but I have the evidence, I have everything on my side, it’s just a matter of getting the judge to see it.”
In order for the judge to see it, Sommerfield needed to prove first that the guns were unduly destroyed without proper consent, and then that they were worth $5,300 as he claimed. During trial, Sommerfield testified that the former Terrace detachment inspector Eric Stubbs offered him $1,000 for the destruction of his guns – but Sommerfield refused the money, saying that wasn’t even close to what they were worth.
But Sommerfield also said he didn’t spend over four years on this for the money. “I’m just cheesed off,” he said, noting he doesn’t want others to have to go through what he’s been through and that people “can’t just swallow what the police say.” Indeed, what may have been damaged even more than the guns during the fire, is Sommerfield’s once-revered view of law enforcement. The whole nearly five-year process has him convinced that what began as a blunder – the police destroying his guns because they didn’t understand their worth or made a mistake – evolved into a cover-up, with police covering for police and trying to hurt Sommerfield’s credibility in court. Whether that’s true or not is yet to be decided, but in speaking with Sommerfield it’s clear that’s what he firmly believes – and what he’s been hell bent on getting the judge and public to believe too.
He says the process has taught him that the RCMP is like a “brotherhood” who protect their own above all else, but he’s adamant that he doesn’t paint all police officers with the same brush, noting that he has had good experiences with law enforcement too.
Rather, he likens the force to “a crate of apples. Eventually, you’ll get a few rotten ones. Normally you’d just throw them out.”
But while Sommerfield’s view of law enforcement might now be a bit charred, witnessing his days in court leaves one with an appreciation of the smaller mechanisms of the day-to-day civil justice system – the dutiful clerks copying papers, the patient judge explaining how to cross examine a witness; the understated, careful defense lawyer and his witnesses, never wavering while being taken to task by a feisty, 91-year-old mechanic.
Sommerfield’s career as a mechanic – and as his time in the navy – helped his legal strategy and motivations. “I’m exceptionally good at mechanical work, well above average. So difficult jobs don’t really phase me, I find a way of doing it,” he said.
And while Sommerfield still thinks he has work to do to shine a light on how difficult and time-consuming it is to go up against the “machine” that is the RCMP, he says he won’t miss going to court – even though he’s clearly proud of the case he presented.
“The lawyer for the police, he was sitting right beside me at the table there, and I asked him, ‘how do you think I was doing, so far?’, and he just grinned,” said Sommerfield.
Stay tuned for more on Sommerfield and the justice’s decision in his trial in a future issue of The Terrace Standard.