Community Legal Education Ontario produces a monthly email bulletin called On the Radar. This month's On the Radar, reproduced for Legalese, looks at some of the laws that apply when the police decide to stop people on the street and question them. Under the federal Combating Terrorism Act, which came into effect earlier this year, police also have the power to detain someone to prevent a terrorist activity.
Can the police stop and question someone? The police can approach someone and ask them questions but they must let them go on their way, unless they arrest them or have grounds (valid reasons) to detain them. For example, if the police are investigating a crime and they have a reasonable suspicion that a person is connected to the crime, they could prevent that person from continuing on their way.
In most cases, people don't have to answer questions, but it is a good idea to be polite. They can tell the police that they don't want to say anything until they speak to a lawyer.
Can the police arrest someone to prevent a terrorist activity? Yes, if they have reasonable grounds to suspect that to prevent the terrorist activity they need to arrest someone or have certain conditions put on them.
If a judge then finds that the police have reasonable grounds for their suspicion, the judge can order the person to agree to certain conditions. For example, the judge might tell the person that they must agree not to possess guns or explosives. If the person doesn't agree, they could be held in jail for up to a year.
What if someone is detained or arrested and doesn't want to answer questions? The police should stop their questioning as soon as the person asks for a lawyer. It's enough to say, "I want to speak to a lawyer." If the police continue to ask questions, the person doesn't have to say anything. They should just ask again to speak to their lawyer.
What if someone doesn't have a lawyer? Legal Aid Ontario pays lawyers known as "duty counsel" to give free legal advice, 24 hours a day. People can ask the police for the toll-free telephone number for duty counsel. In most cases, a lawyer will advise the person not to talk to the police. This is usually the best advice. If someone chooses to talk to the police, they should keep in mind that giving false information can be a crime. And if they lie to the police, this might be used as evidence against them.
Can the police continue to ask questions after someone speaks to a lawyer? Yes. Even if the person says that they don't want to answer, the police can continue to ask questions. But people have the right to remain silent and don't have to say anything.
What rights does someone have if they are arrested or detained? The police must:
tell the person why they've been arrested or detained,
tell them immediately that they have the right to a lawyer,
tell them about Legal Aid Ontario and their right to free legal advice, and
let them speak to a lawyer, in private, as soon as possible, if they ask to do this.
People who are younger than 18 have the right to contact and have a parent or guardian with them when the police question them.
The police can search someone they have arrested:
to protect their own safety,
to find evidence of the crime for which they arrested the person, or
if the person gives "informed consent" to be searched.
To get legal help, contact Legal Aid Ontario at 1-800-668-8258 or www.legalaid.on.ca. Contact the Law Society Referral Service at 1-800-268-8326 for a free half-hour with a lawyer. Visit the website of the Criminal Lawyers Association at http://www.criminallawyers.ca/index.cfm for a list of criminal lawyers.
This column is brought to you by Community Law School (Sarnia-Lambton) Inc., and Community Legal Services and Pro Bono Students Canada at Western University, with funding support from the Law Foundation of Ontario. It provides legal information only. The information is accurate as of the date of publication. Laws change frequently so we caution readers from relying on this information if some time has passed since publication. If you need specific legal advice please contact a lawyer, your community legal clinic: Rural Legal Services at (613) 279-3252 or 1-888-777-8916, Justice Net at 1-866-919-3219, or the Law Society Referral Service at 1-800-268-8326.