When can police pull me over and, if they do, what are my responsibilities? I’ve seen online that you don’t have to answer any questions. What information do I legally have to give? – Cary, Toronto
If you’re pulled over in a traffic stop, you can refuse to answer questions – but keeping mum might not convince the officer to let you off with just a warning.
“You have a legal obligation to provide three documents: your driver’s license, ownership and insurance – you don’t have an obligation to answer any questions beyond those documents,” Toronto criminal defence lawyer Reid Rusonik says. “Having said that, you’re dealing with an individual who’s armed and could be having a lousy day, so having a good attitude can be more important than your rights under the law.”
If you are polite and co-operative during a police stop for a Highway Traffic Act (HTA) violation, an officer may use his discretion and reduce the fine – or not charge you at all, Rusonik says.
“I was a young motorcyclist the first time I experienced that; the officer gave me my stuff back and said, ‘Well, you passed the attitude test, son,’” Rusonik says. “But it can be harder to pass the attitude test depending on your race – sometimes you have to show a better attitude.”
When can police stop you?
“Police can stop a vehicle at any time to determine whether the driver has consumed drugs or alcohol, to see whether the car is mechanically fit, to check whether the driver has a valid licence, or to ensure the driver has insurance,” Laura Berger, interim director of policing and public safety for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, said in an e-mail. “The police may also stop a vehicle where they suspect the driver has committed a driving offence.”
Specific rules vary between provinces. In Ontario, section 216 of the HTA says you must immediately come to a safe stop when pulled over by a police officer. If you don’t immediately stop, you could face a fine between $1,000 and $10,000 and up to six months in jail. If it turns into a chase, the fines could be up to $25,000.
If you’re pulled over, stay in the car, turn on the interior lights, roll down your window and put your hands on the steering wheel, Ontario Provincial Police Sergeant Kerry Schmidt says.
“A traffic stop is one of the most dangerous things an officer can do because he doesn’t know who or what is in the vehicle,” Schmidt says. “Stay in your vehicle and wait until the officer asks you for your information – if you’re digging around in the glove compartment, we might think you have a weapon.”
Once stopped, you have to show your documents. If you don’t have them with you (it’s a $110 fine for not showing your licence), police can detain you until you identify yourself.
Generally, your passengers don’t have to answer questions or provide identification, Berger says.
When can police order you out of your car?
The question of what drivers – and police – are legally required to do in a traffic stop was raised last month after a 28-year-old Illinois woman, Sandra Bland, was found dead in a jail cell. Bland had been pulled over by a Texas state trooper for failing to signal a lane change. She was arrested after she refused to get out of her vehicle. There was debate over whether she was legally required to obey. In Canada, police can ask you to leave your vehicle to take a roadside breath test or sobriety test if they suspect you are impaired.
Otherwise, police can only ask you out of your vehicle if they’re concerned for their safety, Rusonik says.
“[An officer] can’t order you out of the car either unless he has reasonable suspicion to believe that his safety depends on it,” Rusonik says.
Still, Rusonik says it’s often better to co-operate so the confrontation doesn’t escalate. Rights complaints can be sorted out later.
“Kiss the officer’s ass,” Rusonik says. “And get it on video if you can.”
The Internet is full of videos of people doggedly asserting their rights when pulled over by police.
“If you’re giving the officer a bunch of grief, he may think you’re hiding something, and it can take longer to exhaust all the avenues,” Schmidt says. “If you’ve been stopped for running a red light, the officer is just doing his job – he’s not targeting you.”