What ya gonna do when the police want to talk to you?

Last month’s G20 conference in Toronto saw, according to a report on CBC.ca, “more than 900 people arrested during the [protest].” Additionally, an untold number of people had their person, bags and vehicles searched. While it is important to recognize that the G20 is a special circumstance, where police are given special dispensations, in my opinion it is equally important to recognize that the police do not have unlimited rights.

It is important as a citizen to know the answers to questions like, “When are police allowed to search you?” and “What are your rights as a citizen when dealing with the police?”

The problem with these questions is that the answers vary depending on whom you talk to. I would even go as far as saying that trusting just anyone’s answers is a sure-fire way to get your self in a boatload of hot water. So what are you, Jonny and Janet Citizen, to do? Short of asking a police officer, you could talk to someone intimately familiar with the legal system, like Alyson McFetridge from the University of Manitoba’s Legal Aid office.

While McFetridge stressed that people shouldn’t assume that the police are “out to get you” she did feel that it was important for people to understand their rights when dealing with the police.

According to McFetridge, when confronted by an officer, the most important question you can ask is, “Am I being arrested?” because “the rules change if you are being arrested.”

If the officer informs you that you are indeed being arrested, the most important questions you can ask become, “Why am I being arrested?” “What am I being arrested for?” and “Can I speak to my lawyer?”

McFetridge cautioned that if you are under arrest you should be very careful about what questions you answer. She said that the biggest misconception people have is that while the police “can ask you questions, [ . . . ] you are not obliged to answer them.” McFetridge went on to say that this was what got the majority of her clients in trouble.

If you are not being arrested “they can ask you questions, but they can’t detain you. They have no right to hold you or force you to do anything.”

In terms of searches, McFetridge said that the extent of the search the police are allowed to conduct is dependent on whether or not you are under arrest. If you are not under arrest, the most an officer is allowed to do is pat you down to look for weapons.

Because this is a warrantless search, the aim of which is to keep officers safe while talking to you, anything found during it is inadmissible as evidence against you. However, McFetridge stressed that the decision to exclude things found during a warrantless search is entirely up to the judge, who may decide that what was found during the search was serious enough to waive the breach of your rights by the police.

McFetridge also said that, in terms of your bag or vehicle, anything left in plain sight — such as a weapon on your front seat, or stolen property in the back — could be seized as evidence against you.

One misconception that I had corrected was whether or not you are obliged to provide an officer with your identification if confronted. McFetridge said that while you can refuse to produce identification to the police, “it is not recommended to hide your ID.���

“They are going to find you eventually and it is not going to help you in the long run,” said McFetridge. In fact, it might actually make you look guiltier.

McFetridge concluded our talk by saying that, like anyone else, there are good cops and bad cops but in general, “If you don’t give them a hard time, they won’t give you a hard time.”

Knowing your rights is an important part of making intelligent decisions when confronted by the police. Keep in mind though that the vast majority of police are good people who do a difficult job out of a desire to help. But just in case you meet one of the bad ones, it’s nice to know what your rights are and how you should conduct yourself to make sure they aren’t violated.

Leif Larsen is the Editor-in-Chief of the Manitoban.