Police responded to a late-night 911 call, reporting that approximately ten “black guys” were openly brandishing handguns in a strip club parking lot. Four vehicles were also described. A road block was quickly set up in order to interview potential suspects leaving the parking lot. One of the vehicles pulled over by the police (which did not match the description of those mentioned in the 911 call) contained two black males who were questioned. One of the suspects exited the vehicle and tried (unsuccessfully) to escape. Police subsequently searched both suspects and found them to be in possession of prohibited handguns.
The accused individuals challenged the admissibility of the Crown’s evidence, arguing that the road block and subsequent detention was arbitrary within the meaning of Section 9 of the Charter. The trial judge rejected this argument, but was overruled by the Ontario Court of Appeal, which found violations of Sections 8 and 9.
The Supreme Court of Canada restored the trial judge’s decision, concluding that the detention and search in view of the public safety risk potentially posed:
“In the totality of the circumstances, the initial detention of the accused was reasonably necessary to respond to the seriousness of the offence and the threat to safety inherent in the presence of prohibited weapons in a public place and was temporally, geographically and logistically responsive to the circumstances known to the police. It was a justifiable use of police powers associated with the police duty to investigate the offences described by the 911 caller. The police had reasonable grounds to believe that there were several handguns in a public place. This represented a serious offence, accompanied by a genuine risk of serious bodily harm to the public. Requiring the police to stop only those vehicles described by the 911 caller would impose an unrealistic burden on the police, inconsistent with their duty to respond in a timely manner to the seriousness of the circumstances.”
This decision provides police with a certain degree of flexibility in their investigation of serious criminal offences where an imminent risk to the public is involved. However, it also recognizes the limits to investigatory power described in the previous decisions of R. v. Simpson, 1993 CanLII 3379 (ON CA) and R. v. Mann, 2004 SCC 52. Had the offence in question not involved a potentially serious safety risk, and had the road block in question not been geographically limited in scope, the decision to indiscriminately detain motorists leaving the area would likely have been deemed “arbitrary” in nature.
Decided by the Supreme Court of Canada on July 6, 2007.
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