Police Powers and Investigative Detention

May 28, 2010

The police may approach you for questioning in a variety of situations. You may be walking down the street, hanging out at school or even driving in your car. It is important to know when the police can lawfully detain you for questioning. Section 9 of the Charter of Right and Freedoms protects your right to be from arbitrary detention.

Although you may think you’re being detained every time an officer stops you, not every stop will legally amount to a detention. Therefore, it is important to know what constitutes “detention”. The Supreme Court of Canada in 2009 defined detention as a suspension of an individual’s liberty interest by a significant physical or psychological restraint. Psychological detention arises when the individual has or reasonably believes they have the legal obligation to comply with restrictive requests or demands of an officer. In that case, three Toronto police officers were patrolling a high crime school area when they saw Mr. Grant acting suspiciously. A uniformed officer approached him and asked for identification and what was going on. Mr. Grant continued to behave suspiciously. Worried about their safety the officers asked him to keep his hands in front of him. Two other officers arrived and obstructed Mr. Grant’s ability to walk forward. The court found Mr. Grant was psychologically detained when he was told to keep his hands in front of him and when the other officers moved into a position preventing him from walking forward.

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What if you are pulled over by the police while driving your car? The police can pull you over for either a routine safety check or for a Highway Traffic Act violation. These are the types of stops that occur when you are speeding, you have a broken tail light or the police have set up a check-stop to ensure all drivers are licensed and insured. When you are stopped in this situation the driver must surrender all appropriate documents and identification to the officer. However, the driver and occupants are not compelled to provide any additional information to help the officers’ investigation. The occupants of the vehicle, including the driver, have the right to refuse to answer any investigative questions. Canadian citizens have no duty to assist the police in their investigation of crime.

When you are stopped in this situation the police officers may check the exterior of the vehicle to ensure compliance with the Highway Traffic act. They can check for visual appearance, brake and headlights, signals, meter seal, cleanliness, seat belts, ect. In the absence of a warrant these types of check do not permit the officers to search the inside of your vehicle. During a traffic violation stop or a routine check the police may only search the inside of your vehicle if they have reasonable and probable grounds to arrest, and the police have a search warrant.

How can the police form the grounds to arrest you during a routine check or a traffic violation stop? If a prohibited or suspicious item is visible to the officers in their plain view they will form the required grounds to conduct a search of the interior of your vehicle. Items such as drug paraphernalia, weapons, break and enter tools or anything resembling them may permit the police to search the inside of your vehicle, in the absence of a warrant.  Neutral items, such as pagers and phones or items which could be found in any car for any legitimate reason will not justify a search of your vehicles interior or trunk.

What if you are walking down the street and the police stop you for questioning? The police have a limited power to stop you in this situation. They are allowed to stop you for investigative purposes. However, this is only permitted when an on duty officer can put a reason into words why he/she believes you are implicated in current or recent criminal activity. Discriminatory reasons do not amount to an articulable cause for detention. This means, they may not stop you on the sole reason of your race, gender, or membership in a group. This detention is very limited. The police may ask for your name, identification and reason why you are present at the scene. The police may only search you in this situation if the officer has reason to believe his safety is at risk. They may not search for evidence or drugs, they may only search for weapons or anything that may jeopardize their safety. The Supreme Court of Canada has directed that one can only be detained for investigative purposes in circumstances wherein the police have a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in specific criminal activity. A suspicion or hunch is not enough.

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