By Jeffery Spiegel
For many Ontarians, driving is a necessity—for commuting to work, running errands, or just for pleasure. But what most Ontarians don’t know is that driving on an Ontario highway is a privilege—not a right.
In order to protect the users of Ontario’s highways from harm, the Ontario Provincial Police and local police forces have been granted the power to stop motorists and ensure they are complying with the rules of the road.
Under Ontario law, police are permitted to stop a vehicle at any time for any of the following reasons: to ensure the driver has a valid driver’s license, to check that the driver is properly insured, to determine if the driver is under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or to see whether the vehicle is mechanically fit. Police may also stop a vehicle if they suspect the driver has committed an offence under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act (“HTA”) or a criminal offence.
However, the police cannot just stop your vehicle for no reason, and then mask the arbitrary stop under the pretext of a legitimate stop. To do so would be a violation of your fundamental right, in Canada, not to be arbitrarily detained or arrested.
What should you do if you are signaled to stop by the police?
Section 216 of the HTA says that you must come to an immediate stop, when safe to do so, if you are signalled or requested to stop by the police. The penalty for failing to do so is a fine between $1,000 and $10,000, and/or imprisonment for up to six months. Leading the police on a chase increases the fine to between $5,000 and $25,000, invokes an automatic prison sentence of at least 14 days, and results in the suspension of your driver’s license for at least five years.
Once stopped, what are your rights and responsibilities?
You are legally required to provide the police with three documents—your driver’s license, the vehicle’s ownership papers, and proof of insurance.
Beyond that, you have the right to remain silent, and not answer any questions asked by police. This right—that protects you against self-incrimination—is guaranteed under section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Can the police order you out of your vehicle?
The police have a limited right to order you out of your vehicle. They can only do so if they suspect you are impaired (in order to administer a sobriety test), or if the officer is concerned for his or her safety.
Can the police search your vehicle?
If you are stopped by the police under one of the permissible pretexts discussed above, the police do not have the right to conduct a comprehensive search of your vehicle.
Police only have the right to search your vehicle if they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe there is evidence relating to the commission of an offence in the car. They must also have reason to believe that the evidence will be destroyed or removed if they were to first obtain a search warrant.
But if the police are only stopping you to verify that you have a valid driver’s license, they obviously have no reason to search your trunk. In that situation the police are only allowed to look in the windows of your vehicle, and use a flashlight, if necessary.
For more information regarding your rights during a traffic stop, or if you believe your rights have been violated during a traffic stop, please contact our criminal law group