How would you feel if the police stopped you for no reason and demanded to search your bags? How would you feel if it happened three times in one day? That’s exactly what 35-year-old Zelda Sun says happened to her in Victoria, B.C., on July 1. In fact, she was just one of hundreds of revellers who were subjected to “random and mandatory” searches as they headed off to Canada Day festivities on the lawns of the British Columbia legislature, according to the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. The association has since launched a complaint, at the heart of which is a largely unresolved issue: when can the police search people and when can’t they?
Victoria police spokesman Sgt. Grant Hamilton says the searches the police performed were legitimate, because the B.C. Liquor Control and Licensing Act allows searches if they have “reasonable and probable grounds” to believe alcohol is illegally possessed. He suggests that public consumption of alcohol, intoxication, appearing to be underage, or simply having “a backpack that looks like it’s weighted down with alcohol” all qualify as reasons for a search. The police have also maintained that public drunkenness at previous years’ festivities constituted reasonable grounds for searches.
But Alan Young, a law professor at Osgoode Hall in Toronto, says that’s not true. “There is no general power to search people” just because there have been problems in the past, he says. Besides, carrying alcohol in a backpack isn’t a crime. Criminal law professor James Stribopoulos of Osgoode Hall agrees. “Drinking alcohol in public is an entirely different matter, but the complaint suggests that the police did not wait until alcohol was actually being consumed.”
Young says this may be a case where police “overreach” and hope the courts will back them up. But whatever the outcome of the civil liberties complaint process, he says it still won’t clarify the law. The only way to find out for sure whether the searches were legal or not would be if someone fought a charge—or decided to sue the police. M
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