Truck driver accused of blocking Highway 13 in 2017 Montreal blizzard acquitted

A truck driver accused of endangering lives by blocking a stretch of highway with his vehicle for hours during a Montreal blizzard two years ago has been acquitted of all charges. 

Palwinder Singh Johal, 59, faced charges under section 327 of Quebec’s Highway Safety Code for allegedly refusing to allow his truck to be towed during the March 2017 snowstorm that saw motorists trapped on Highway 13 for 12 hours.

The Laval resident has always maintained that he willingly allowed his truck to be towed that night and that he wasn’t at the front of the kilometres-long jam.

A Quebec court justice of the peace, Suzanne Bousquet, ruled that the Crown could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was Johal who had refused to be towed. 

‘Quasi-negligent’ photo lineup

The main witness in the case was Mark Legault, a tow-truck driver for the company Burstall-Conrad. Legault claimed that a man of Indian origin refused to be towed three times that night.

Legault called provincial police about a white, 16-metre-long semi-trailer with the word Saeco written on it that was stuck in the middle of the highway, blocking other motorists.

When police arrived at the scene, Legault told the officers the driver of the white Saeco semi-trailer had refused to be towed. Officers approached the driver of that truck and identified him as Johal, using his licence.

The officers asked Johal to try moving his truck himself. When the vehicle refused to budge, they asked him to have it towed. He co-operated, they testified. 

Palwinder Singh Johal, right, shows Radio-Canada reporters the receipt for his truck being towed the night of the blizzard. (Radio-Canada)

In her decision, Bousquet said that Legault contradicted himself in various versions of events. He at first claimed to be speaking with the driver the whole time, although he later admitted there were two people in the truck, and he could not tell them apart. 

Provincial police asked Legault to identify the suspect in a photo lineup — a lineup which the judge dismissed as a “quasi-negligent” piece of evidence.

The SQ officer in charge of choosing the photos for the lineup could not find enough photos of people of South Asian background. Rather than searching through other databases, he changed his search criteria to include photos of white people, “even though the photo of the defendant clearly showed he was a dark-skinned person.”

The judge said Legault also seemed unsure of himself when he picked a photo of Johal out of that lineup. The tow truck driver said,”It’s possible. It’s close.”

“He was wearing a toque the night of the event, and his beard was longer,” Legault later added.

In a 2017 interview, Palwinder Singh Johal’s son, Paramjit Johal, told the CBC that he believed his father was targeted because of his skin colour.