Last week, Nancy Seto wrote about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. She gave examples of a few defining moments in the charter’s 30-year history. Each of those cases was the triumph of years of legal work and each Supreme Court of Canada judgment enshrines ideals and values by which Canadians can live.
But what exactly is the day-to-day reality of your rights and civil liberties defined by the charter? You know you have them, but when you’re faced with a moment when you’re being wronged contrary to your rights, how do these ideas, ideals, and values protect you?
Your rights as enshrined in the charter only carry legal weight after the fact. Such as when you were wronged badly enough to get you into court or you were dragged into court by the cold and icy arms of the criminal justice system.
Nancy explained that your charter rights only serve to protect you from the government in all its various permutations. Nowhere do civil liberties and the government intersect as frequently as the police fighting crime on the streets. This is why many of the important constitutional cases that define your rights occurred in the context of the criminal justice system.
So, everyone has rights and most people can think of a right for which they are thankful—freedom of speech, religion, mobility, life, liberty, security of the person (to name a few).
Slightly fewer than most people can think of a time when any one of their rights has been denied to them by the government and only a mere fraction of these people ever get any sort of remedy for this violation of their rights.
A few months ago, a friend of mine was waiting for a bus home after a night out. A man with a backpack approached her and told her he was selling beer from his backpack and asked if she would like to buy one. At that moment the bus arrived and my friend got on. The man had an argument with the woman he was with and got on the bus as well leaving the woman behind. A few stops later the man got off the bus. A few stops after that the police stopped the bus. Boarded the bus with guns drawn and walked up and down the bus looking at the passengers while some of them spoke with the bus driver. The police were questioning the bus driver about a man with a backpack. Apparently a woman had called them and told them that a violent man with a backpack of knives got on the bus. The bus driver assured the police officers that the man with the backpack was not violent and at any rate was no longer on the bus.
This was the first time that my friend had ever been in a situation where the police visibly demonstrated their power through drawn guns. Thankfully the event ended without incident, but the whole interaction with the police carrying guns was truly surprising and unnerving.
Now had it gone a little bit differently—for example, if the police had approached any man with a backpack on the bus and demanded to see what was inside—that person’s charter rights would have been engaged. If nothing illegal or dangerous was found in the backpack, then the person with the backpack and the police would have gone their separate ways. The person who was searched would likely have a different sense of what he could expect from of his rights to privacy. Anything found in the backpack would (in most circumstances) not be able to be used as evidence against the person if what was in his backpack led to criminal charges, but otherwise there is no way to address the feeling of being violated unfairly.
Every now and then I speak to people that have had unnerving encounters with police. These people are for the most part law-abiding, but for one reason or another they find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. These people, who for the most part are not marginalized people living on the fringes of society and are also not career criminals, are shocked by their treatment at the hands of police or the violations of their charter rights.
They always want to know what can be done to ensure that the scales are balanced again and justice is done. Unfortunately, for the most part, these people have little to no remedy. To be sure, there are police complaint procedures, but the results from these avenues of redress tend to be unsatisfactory. There are also ways to pursue the police in civil court, but these routes are costly and time consuming. They are not battles to take on lightly. For most people, the only reasonable course of action is to dust themselves off and carry on with their lives a little wiser.
Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. The column’s writers, Laurel Dietz and Nancy Seto, are criminal defence lawyers at Cobb St. Pierre Lewis. You can send your questions for the column to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A word of caution: Don’t take this column as personal legal advice, because it’s not. It is intended for general information and entertainment purposes only.