Police Detention & Rights in Alberta
I recently received a message from a concerned individually who stated that her vehicle
was pulled over, her boyfriend (the passenger) was arrested, she was detained by the
police, her vehicle was searched, and she was required to give a statement to the police.
Scared and concerned, she contacted our office looking for some advice, being unsure as
to the precise limits of police authority. The following is an attempt to explain, in clear
and simple terms, the limits of police authority and the rights of every person upon arrest
Police Powers of Arrest and Detention
In Canada, the police have a wide latitude to detain members of the public. However, this
power of detention is not limitless. The police have the authority to detain any member of
the public if there is a reasonable suspicion that this individual may be connected to some
form of criminal activity. Police powers of arrest are even more restricted, requiring that
they believe on reasonable and probable grounds that an offence has been committed.
What is a reasonable suspicion? This is a very low threshold to meet, but is still a
standard that needs to be met. For example, a person resembling a physical description
of a suspect would give the police power to detain a person and question them further. A
person fleeing an area where an offence has been reported might also create a reasonable
suspicion that a person is connected to criminal activity. The police would be authorized
to detain an individual at this point.
However, the police cannot simply detain random people for questioning, based simply
on a hunch or intuition that they may have been doing something wrong. While this
technique is sometimes successful, the concern is not with those who are caught by
this technique, but with those who have done nothing wrong, who are then subject
to detention and police investigation. We are not meant to live in a police state, and
therefore police can only detain when they have reason to do so.
The Supreme Court has been careful to state that not every interaction with the police
will amount to a detention. The police are entitled to simply ask questions of people
without having detained them. Sound confusing? It is, to the public and the people that
represent them. The advice is this…if you are confused whether or not you are detained,
simply try to leave, or ask. Simply walking away will let you know if you are detained,
because the police will either try to stop you, or not. If they stop you, then clearly you are
detained, and are entitled to further information. Also, if you are confused, ask!!! Simply
stating “are you detaining me?” signals to the police (and most importantly, the Court!)
that you want to know whether or not you are free to leave. If the police say no, then you
are entitled to leave.
One final thing: these same rules do not apply to the operator of a motor vehicle. If you
are interested in the rights and obligation of a detained motorist, look under the following