Vancouver lawyer, Alan Cameron Ward, was mistaken for an individual who police believed was planning to throw a pie at Jean Chretien during a public appearance. The Vancouver Police arrested Mr. Ward took him into custody, strip-searched him, and impounded his car, but proceeded to release him without charge some 4.5 hours later.
Mr. Ward sued the police for violating his right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, pursuant to Section 8 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The BC Supreme Court determined that a Charter breach had occurred, and assessed damages at $5,000 for the illegal strip search, plus $100 for impounding Mr. Ward’s vehicle.
This result was upheld by the BC Court of Appeal, bur further appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada by the City of Vancouver. At issue were the circumstances in which a court can order monetary damages as compensation for a Charter breach.
The Supreme Court of Canada upheld the power of lower courts to order Charter damages, but allowed the City’s appeal in part, stating that Charter damages should only be used in certain narrow circumstances where the Charter breach is significant, and where other remedies would fail to compensate the Plaintiff.
In Mr. Ward’s case, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the strip search was sufficient egregious to warrant Charter damages, and upheld the trial judge’s order that the City compensate Mr. Ward in the amount of $5,000.
In regard to the illegally impounded vehicle, however, the court found that a simple declaration that the seizure of the vehicle was unlawful adequately addressed the Charter breach, and for this reason damages were not warranted.
Overall, the court sought to strike a compromise, recognizing the need to compensate Mr. Ward for the high-handed and erroneous conduct of the police, while seeking to prevent a stream of lawsuits stemming from minor Charter breaches.
Mr. Ward won on the major issue and this case certainly stands for the proposition that police cannot perform arbitrary strip-searches with impunity. As is customary with Canadian jurisprudence, however, the court’s decision shows minimal respect for property rights and the need to compensate individuals whose property is seized without just cause.
Click here for the full text of the decision.