What are your rights and obligations if a police officer flags down your car in Ontario?

Are they allowed to stop you for no reason?

Do you have to comply if asked to step out of your car?

Can the police search you or your car?

What else can they legally do?

Considering the high likelihood that you’ll be stopped at least once in your life in Ontario, it’s surprising how few people understand their legal rights and responsibilities.

The police have broad powers in Ontario but must have a reason to pull you over while you’re driving.

Generally speaking, it’s best not to be obstructive or combative with the officers who pull you over and want to search you or your car. You do not have to provide your consent to search unless they arrest you but be polite and compliant otherwise.

Here’s what else you need to know…

What if you’re arrested and searched after being pulled over in Ontario?

Police in Ontario have the right to search you and your vehicle if you’ve been arrested or if they have a warrant for your arrest.

They are generally only permitted to look inside your car through the windows unless they have reasonable suspicion that a crime has been committed or is about to be committed, i.e., a valid reason to search your vehicle. For instance, if the police believe there are weapons, illegal drugs or alcohol in your car, they can legally search it.

The search is conducted as part of the investigation into a possible crime and ostensibly for one of the following reasons:

  • To ensure their safety or the safety of the public (e.g., to look for a weapon)
  • To prevent the destruction of evidence in a criminal matter
  • To locate evidence of the offence for which you’ve been arrested or detained

If you’ve been detained in Ontario, i.e., you’ve been stopped but no arrest has yet been made, the police have limited powers of search. They can pat you down to make sure that their safety or public safety is not threatened but they cannot search your car.

To search your car, bag or cell phone activity, the police need to arrest you or obtain your consent to search you. They may need a search warrant for cell phone searches (usually concerning a serious offence such as a violent crime or drug trafficking).

For drug offences where the police believe you may have swallowed evidence, they can contain you in a way that allows them to recover the evidence,

Police investigating a serious recent sexual offence in Ontario may obtain the right to take a swab of your body parts, including your penis.

Special search powers also extend to individuals in certain locations, such as:

  • A courtroom
  • An electricity generating station
  • A nuclear facility
  • A correctional institution

Can the police strip search you in Ontario?

Police in Ontario can strip search you if they have reasonable grounds to believe that a weapon or other evidence related to the charges you were arrested for may be concealed on your person.

This should only be performed if a pat-down search has failed to uncover the weapon or other evidence and it should be done at a police station where a reasonable degree of privacy can be assured.

If you’re asked to remove your clothing voluntarily, consult a criminal defence lawyer as soon as possible.

Evidence-based searches in Ontario

One of the primary reasons to justify a police search in Ontario is to locate possible evidence of a crime that they are investigating.

There may be “reasonable grounds” to believe that the following types of evidence are on your person or in your car:

  • Weapons: in the interests of safety (their safety and/or that of the public), the police can search you if they believe you have a weapon on your person.
  • Drugs: if the police are investigating illegal drug smuggling or possession and believe that you have drugs on your person, they can search you and your belongings. In public places like an airport, highway or bus terminal, a sniffer dog may be used.
  • Alcohol: if the police believe that you are transporting alcohol illegally or investigating an impaired driving charge and believe that open bottles or cans of alcohol may be in your vehicle, they have the power to search it.

Warrant and informed consent

The presence of a warrant means that the police have already convinced the justice system that there are “reasonable grounds” to investigate a crime. The police then have the power to search you in a reasonable way.

The only other way for the police to legally perform a search on you without arresting you is if you provide informed consent, i.e., you agree to let the police conduct a search and understand the possible consequences of doing so. It’s generally best to speak to your lawyer before agreeing to this.

Unreasonable search and seizure

All Canadians are protected from “unreasonable search and seizure” in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. As such, all searches must be conducted reasonably with no unnecessary damage to property.

Search and seizure rights are treated seriously by the justice system and evidence may be discarded unless gathered correctly.

If you’re arrested, you should assert your right to speak to a lawyer as soon as possible. Your lawyer will usually start by investigating how evidence was collected from you — as this can form the basis for a defence.

When can police stop you in Ontario?

Ultimately, the police can stop your vehicle at any time in Ontario if they have reasonable suspicion of a crime or traffic offence. This could be anything from failing to make a complete stop or making an illegal U-turn to investigating impaired driving.

The police can also stop your car to check whether it is mechanically fit to be on the roads, to check the validity of a licence or to ensure the driver has insurance.

If you don’t immediately come to a safe stop in Ontario, you could face a fine of $1,000 to $10,000 and up to six months in jail. A chase may result in a fine of up to $25,000.

When can the police order you out of your car?

If you’re pulled over by the police, it’s best to remain in the car, turn on the interior lights, roll down your window and put your hands on the steering wheel. Don’t fidget or look in the glove compartment until the officer tells you to do so.

Police officers can ask you to leave your vehicle to take a roadside breath test or sobriety test if they suspect you’re impaired. The only other reason you should be asked to leave your vehicle is if the officer is concerned for his/her safety.

If you’re arrested on suspicion of committing a criminal offence, speak to a lawyer from Affordable Defence in Ottawa before saying too much to the police. We offer a free consultation.