Interacting with law enforcement in Canada

By Delaney Rombough

Posted on June 21, 2021

Most people encounter police or law enforcement officers at some point in their lives. It is important to know what your rights are and how to interact with police so that you can protect yourself and others.

According to the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, police officers can stop you in three circumstances:

  • If they suspect you committed a crime
  • If they see you committing a crime
  • If you are driving

The police are allowed to stop and ask you questions. Most of the time, you don’t have to answer their questions, but it is often best to answer them politely and to the best of your abilities. In some cases, you do need to provide a statement to the police if required by law. Law enforcement officers may also ask for identification, your name, and your address, which you usually don’t have to provide.

If the police don’t arrest you and don’t have grounds to detain you, they have to let you go. If they detain you, they must inform you of your right to speak to a lawyer and give you a chance to do so. Since anything you say to law enforcement officers could be used as evidence, it is sometimes best not to answer any questions until you have spoken with a lawyer.

Racial profiling in Canada

Unfortunately, in Canada, people of colour are more likely to get stopped and questioned by police. This is called racial profiling. The Ontario Human Rights Commission defines racial profile as any action taken for reasons of safety, security, or public protection that relies on stereotypes about race, colour, ethnicity, gender, etc., rather than on reasonable suspicion. It’s against the law for someone to use racial profiling, even those in positions of authority. Psychologists have found that racial profiling leads to feelings of fear, stress, mistrust, and trauma for those directly and indirectly affected by it. Racial profiling, though illegal, still happens in many institutions in Canada including education, housing, employment, and within law enforcement—specifically with regards to policing, arrests, and court sentencing.

At the airport

Canadian borders are policed by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority and the Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA). They are the agents that will screen you and your bags when you go through airport security. When going through the various checkpoints at the airport, make sure you have your boarding pass, passport, and any other visa or immigration documents handy. When you arrive in Canada make sure that you declare anything that you are bringing with you. The Canadian government also has a list of restricted and prohibited items. If an officer finds you with a prohibited good, they are permitted to seize the good, and it will not be returned to you. You may also face fines. It should also be noted that while cannabis is legal in Canada, you cannot carry it across the border whether you’re coming or going.

At the airport, you are required to put your carry-on bags through an x-ray screening machine and walk through a metal detector. If the metal detector or x-ray screening machine triggers an alarm when you or your bags are being screened, or if you are randomly selected for further inspection, you may have to undergo additional screening. Additional screening may include a pat-down, a search of your carry-on bag and/or electronic devices (make sure your electronic devices can be removed from their case and charged and turned on), a full-body scan in an x-ray machine, or swabbing for explosive trace detection.

Security agents are trained to use common sense and courtesy when screening individuals carrying or wearing clothing of religious or cultural significance. However, if you wear your head covering through the metal detector, and it sets off the alarm, you will require additional screening. You may be asked to remove your head covering, and this can be done in a private room at your request. If there is no alarm, an officer may ask you to pat down your own head covering and show your hands for explosive trace detection.

The CBSA may detain you at the airport and take you to a detention facility if they consider it necessary to complete an examination, weren’t satisfied with your identity, or have reason to believe you’re inadmissible to Canada. If you are detained at a port of entry, you have the right to:

  • Be told why you’re being detained
  • Contact your embassy
  • Be represented by counsel or receive legal aid at your expense
  • Be provided with an interpreter if you don’t speak the language

You will need to give all your personal belongings to the officer. During your time there: you will be fed; you will have visiting hours; you can make local phone calls; and in some places, you can send and receive written mail.

If you’re inadmissible to Canada, you won’t be allowed to enter the country. You may be found inadmissible for reasons such as: security reasons, human or international rights violations, criminal history, medical reasons, financial reasons, misrepresentation, or having an inadmissible family member. If you are found inadmissible but have a justified reason to travel to Canada, you may be issued a temporary resident permit. You may receive a temporary resident permit if your application for an electronic travel authorization (eTA) was refused, or you may need to apply for a visitor visa. It’s important to note that a temporary resident permit is usually issued only for the length of your visit, and you must leave Canada by the expiration date or get a new one. You must pay a $200 fee for a temporary resident permit.

If you are found inadmissible to Canada for serious criminality inside or outside of the country (e.g., drinking and driving is considered a serious criminal offence), you may face the following consequences:

  • Permanent residents may lose their status and have to leave the country
  • Temporary residents may not be able to enter or stay in Canada
  • Refugee claimants may not be eligible for a refugee hearing

police man

If you are stopped while driving

The police can stop you at any time while driving to check if you have consumed drugs or alcohol, your vehicle is in proper working order, and/or you have a valid license and insurance. If law enforcement officers ask to see your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance, you must provide these documents. It’s best to keep these documents in the glove compartment. If the police suspect that you have been drinking, they may ask you to pass a sobriety test or take a breathalyzer test. You don’t have the right to speak to a lawyer before doing a roadside test, but you do if you have to take the test at a police station.

Police may also pull you over if they suspect you are driving high. Cannabis is legal in Canada, but driving while being high is illegal. Cannabis can remain in your system for up to six hours or more and may impair your driving. There is a zero-tolerance policy for anyone who:

  • Is 21 or under
  • Has a G1, G2, M1, or M2 license
  • Drives a vehicle that requires an A-F class driver’s license or Commercial Vehicle
  • Operator’s Registration
  • Drives a road-building machine

Law enforcement officers are equipped with roadside drug screening equipment and sobriety tests. If your ability to drive has been impaired as a result of drug or alcohol use and the police find about it, you will face serious penalties including: immediate license suspension, fines, possible vehicle impoundment, possible criminal record, and possible jail time. It is illegal to transport cannabis in a motor vehicle if it’s open and not in its original packaging, and if it is not packed in baggage and available to anyone in the car.

The police don’t have the right to search your car unless they believe you have drugs, alcohol, or evidence relating to a crime. They also have to believe that this evidence would otherwise be destroyed if they obtained a search warrant.

If you plan on being out in an environment where you’re going to consume drugs or alcohol, plan a safe way home that doesn’t require you to drive. Have a designated driver; use public transit; call a friend or family member for a ride; or call a taxi or rideshare.

When you can be searched

Generally speaking, you can only be searched if you have been placed under arrest or have consented to the search.

If you are arrested or detained

If you are arrested or detained, the police have to tell you why. Don’t resist being arrested, or you may be charged with “obstructing the police” or “assault with intent to resist.” Law enforcement officers may briefly detain you if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that you are involved in a crime. You also have the right to remain silent, and you don’t have to answer any questions from the police. You have the right to speak to a lawyer, and they must tell you this as soon as possible. Police also have to inform you of your right to legal aid and free legal services. They must also allow you to make more than one phone call if necessary to contact your lawyer. Once you get a hold of your lawyer, you may speak to them in private. You won’t be required to answer any questions from the police even after you’ve spoken with your lawyer.
police car

If the police come to your home

The police can enter your home under certain circumstances:

  • They have a warrant to enter your home to arrest someone.
  • They have a search warrant.
  • They have permission from you or someone else in authority in your home.
  • There are urgent circumstances, such as a 911 call, to help victims of domestic assault collect their belongings, or if the police believe someone in the home needs emergency services.
  • They suspect a crime has been committed against you, not by you, in relation to your property.

A search warrant allows the police to search your home and take certain items. They have to identify themselves and ask permission to come in. Law enforcement officers also have to show you a copy of the warrant. If you refuse to let them enter your home, you may be charged with “obstructing the police.” The police can take items you’re not legally allowed to have, such as illegal drugs or items that may be evidence in an investigation. If they take things that legally belong to you, they have to return them to you within three months.

When dealing with law enforcement officers, it’s important that you know your rights so that you don’t end up in trouble. To learn more about your legal rights in Canada, check this article by The Newcomer.

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