You leave the office around midnight, dash across the underground parking garage to your car, breathe a sigh of relief when checking that your backseat is empty and pull out of the lot. You get on the road and barely two blocks from the office you’re stopped by sirens. You’ve never so much as ran a stop sign but you can’t help but feel rattled.
The power dynamic between police and citizens leaves women feeling vulnerable, even in situations like a simple traffic stop, says Susan Vella, a civil lawyer who represents sexual assault victims.
“The woman feels powerless to do anything but be compliant to what the police officer has requested whether or not there is a legal justification for it because most people aren’t lawyers so they don’t really know what their rights are,” Vella says.
And then there’s the worst-case scenario women fear when interacting with any male late at night while alone. News that a Toronto police officer charged with sexual assault while taking her home in his police cruiser from the entertainment district last September brings home the importance of knowing what your basic rights are. What kind of information do you have to provide? What can you ask for? Do you have to get into a cruiser if asked?
Chatelaine asked lawyer Laura Berger, acting director of public safety program at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, what to expect and what to do when stopped or pulled over by police.
What information do you have to provide an officer when on foot?
If you are stopped by police, it’s always a good idea to be polite but if you don’t want to speak to police, you can ask: “Am I free to go?” If the officers don’t indicate that you’re being detained or arrested than you are free to leave without answering any questions or identifying yourself.
What if they ask you to get into the police car but they haven’t arrested you, can you say no?
If you are not under arrest, there is no compulsion to get into a police cruiser. You are free to walk away and that includes the freedom to not get into a police car. I also think it’s entirely appropriate if you are being questioned, subject to an investigative detention, to insist on that happening in the open.
If you are under arrest, that situation changes. But if you’re under arrest you have rights as well. Most importantly, once you are arrested they have tell you why you are being arrested and [what your rights are].
What about when you are pulled over while driving?
Police have broader powers when it comes to drivers. In particular, they don’t have to have any kind of suspicion or grounds to stop a vehicle and that’s why they do random stops on the highway or [have programs like] RIDE. The idea is that driving is privilege not a right, and in part to combat the dangers of drunk driving or driving with suspended licenses, the police have greater powers than if you’re on foot.
So you do have to provide your name, your identification and your insurance information and the idea behind that is that there’s a strong social interest in making sure drivers on the road are qualified to drive and have the insurance that’s required.
Is there anything else they can ask you for?
If they have reason to suspect you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol they can make you do a roadside sobriety test. You don’t have the right to a lawyer before taking a roadside breathalyzer or other sobriety test.
At what point does a police officer have to tell you why they’ve pulled you over?
In a car, they can say it’s just a random stop. So they don’t have to explain — it’s not the same if you have been detained or arrested. You can certainly ask and officers will often tell you because they notice something wrong with your car — your license plate is out of date or your tail light isn’t working.
What information can you ask an officer for?
You can always ask for the officer’s name and badge number, if you feel like you want to file a complaint, that’s always fair. And they have to provide that information to you. It’s also absolutely fair to ask why you’ve been stopped.
It’s also important to know police can’t search your car for no reason. So if they have stopped you to check your sobriety or license or registration, they can look in the windows of your car but they can’t open up your car for no reason. It’s only if they see or smell something that gives them grounds to believe there’s illegal drugs or alcohol or evidence relating to a crime in the car that they can then search your car.
On a traffic stop, in what scenario could they ask you to get in police car?
I can’t see any other legitimate reason that a police officer would have the right to demand getting in their car if you aren’t being arrested.