Several years ago, a friend of mine was stopped by a police officer for speeding. The officer should have just given her a ticket. But, he didn’t.
The officer asked her some very pointed questions about the contents of her vehicle, suspecting that she had some illegal items in her car. She indicated that she had nothing in her vehicle outside of some clothes, CDs and other personal items. But, that didn’t satisfy the police officer.
The officer asked her to exit her vehicle and then proceeded to search her vehicle. After searching it, NOTHING was found. The officer then got back into his car and drove away, leaving my friend to put her items back into her car.
I wonder if this is a regular event for British Columbians? I hope that it’s not. If you can’t tell from my tone, that officer shouldn’t have searched my friend’s car.
As I said in a previous column, police need to follow the rules: Batman, police, and lowering crime. So, what is the rule about police searching your belongings/property?
Well, here it is: Section 8 of the Charter protects everyone from police randomly searching the property in which you hold a reasonable expectation of privacy. But, what does “reasonable expectation of privacy” mean? What sort of property does that include?
Well, to illustrate, you hold a reasonable expectation of privacy over your house and over your car; they are private places for you. But, the same isn’t true for a friend’s car or a locker (in school); those places are not as private for you.
Here’s a further illustration: police cannot randomly show up at your home or pull your car over and start to search your belongings. That is NOT allowed. BUT, students in schools have a diminished expectation of privacy over their personal lockers. As such, random searches in student lockers are less likely to violate the rules.
So, when can police search your house or car? Well, in order for police to search something in which you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, they (typically) require a search warrant.
How are search warrants granted? Well, search warrants are granted only if there are solid grounds that an offence has been committed and a search will reveal evidence of that offence. So, before a search is undertaken, police have to jump through a bunch of hurdles (and that’s important and reasonable).
But, do police always have to get a warrant to search someone’s personal property? Short answer: no.
Police are occasionally allowed to search without a warrant if there is an imminent danger that evidence of a crime will be destroyed or if someone will be harmed. Police also do not need a warrant if the person (who is subject to the search) consents to the search. Police are also allowed to search a person after arresting them, which sometimes reveals drugs or weapons (or both).
So, what happens if police don’t follow these rules? Well, if they don’t, the evidence that is found in the search could be excluded from trial. If that happens, then the likelihood of a conviction (against the person who had the illegal items) shrinks SIGNIFICANTLY.
The law in this area is vast and equally complex. But, I have an expectation that all police know and follow these rules. I hope that I am not alone.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.
Originally posted on Castanet.net on March 5, 2013: Can police search your home or car?