Those who wield power and enforce the law must also be subject to the law. Police officers are vested with an enormous amount of responsibility, and an enormous amount of power to carry out those responsibilities. Police powers can dramatically limit basic freedoms we take for granted in a democratic society. Police are given powers to stop, detain, question, search and arrest individuals. They are issued firearms and can use force, including lethal force, in carrying out their duties.
In order to have an effective, trusted, and professional police force, there must be clear and strong limits on police powers to detain, search, arrest, use physical force, and otherwise curtail individual rights. In order to make these legal limits meaningful, we must have effective oversight and accountability regimes to ensure that those who wield power are also subject to it.
Canadians come into contact with the police every day—whether as victims, witnesses, suspects, or simply as members of the public. How we are treated by the police, the rights we are afforded in these interactions, and the remedies we can expect when our rights are violated by those with power is a reflection of the health of our democracy. Police have unique powers in our society, including the ability to use force. These powers demand great scrutiny and oversight from the public in order to ensure that individuals and communities are treated with respect and dignity. In order to effectively ensure that police and other government actors do not abuse the powers they have been given over citizens, it is essential to have reliable systems of accountability in place.
In May 2009, Bela Kosoian entered a subway station to travel to university. She took the descending escalator, and like many subway users, did not hold onto the handrail. A police officer saw her and ordered her several times to hold onto the handrail, and pointed to a nearby sign. She refused and would not identify herself when she reached the bottom of the escalator. When she tried to leave, the police officer and a colleague took her by the elbow into a holding room. She was handcuffed with her arms behind her back. Her bag was searched without her consent and she was charged with failing to hold the handrail and for hindering the police officers in their duties.
The restraint, the excessive restraint, the detention — all of it was unlawful and liable for damages. Ms. Kosoian was acquitted of the offence and brought an action against the police officer, his employer and the subway system, arguing that her arrest was unlawful and unreasonable.
Police have no blanket powers of arrest. At the Supreme Court hearing, our lawyers argued that police cannot make up rules and then arrest you for not following them.
The Court agreed. The Supreme Court of Canada held that a reasonable police officer would not have considered failing to hold the handrail to be an offence.
In carrying out their duties, police officers may be required to limit the rights and freedoms of people. There is an undeniable risk of abuse of power. This is why there must always be a legal basis for police officers actions.
Back to our work