Motor Vehicle Stops and Your Rights

I have recently been asked the question of how the police are permitted to stop us randomly in our motor vehicles, particularly in the case of roadside blocks. The police can, and should, be permitted to stop us for random motor vehicle checks and this article will explain why.

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees all citizens the right not to be arbitrarily detained and to be free from unreasonable searches and seizure. Random stops and roadside blocks are by definition arbitrary, so a logical question is why don’t they violate our rights?

In British Columbia, police officers firstly get their authority to conduct traffic stops from section 73 the Motor Vehicle Act, which requires you to stop safely if a police officer signals to you to pull over. You also have to provide your name, the name of the owner of the vehicle you are driving, you driver’s license and proof of insurance. These stops, authorized by s. 73 of the Motor Vehicle Act, can be random stops, roadblock stops or stops based on identifiable infractions (like speeding or disobeying traffic signs).

Both roadblock stops and random stops have been held to violate the right against arbitrary detention. But part of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows our rights to be violated when that violation is a reasonable limit on our freedoms. It is the purpose of the random and roadblock stops that save them even though they technically violate our rights. The purpose of these stops is for road safety, which is a broad public concern. We can all agree that the police should be able to conduct these stops to check on matters such as sobriety, licensing, insurance and the mechanical fitness of vehicles. Further, provided you aren’t breaking any laws when you are stopped, one of these stops will be but a brief interference in your trip. These are the reasons that our right not to be arbitrarily detained or searched can be violated by the police with motor vehicle stops.

However, an important thing to note is that random stops and roadblocks are limited to the purposes of public safety and the police do not have unchecked power to investigate any and all suspected activity. As mentioned, the primary aim of the random or roadblock stops is to check for sobriety, licenses, ownership, insurance, and the mechanical fitness of the cars. The police cannot use these stops beyond these purposes and random stop programs cannot be turned into a means of conducting either an unfounded general inquisition or an unreasonable search. So the police cannot start searching through your vehicle at one of these random stops, unless they have good reason.

On the other hand, police can search vehicles when they have reasonable grounds to believe that the detention and search will provide evidence of an offence. Reasonable grounds can be based on a police officer’s observations, tips, and reports of criminal activity. For example, if you are pulled over at a roadblock and the smell of burnt marijuana and smoke wafts out of the driver’s window when you roll it down, the police officer would then have reasonable grounds to search your vehicle for drugs.

While roadblocks and random selective stops have been held to be arbitrary detentions, but saved by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the same cannot be said about vehicle stops based on identifiable infractions. Logically, a vehicle stop based on specifically identifiable infraction (like speeding) is not arbitrary. Therefore, where an offence has been observed prior to the stop, the stop does not violate your right against arbitrary detention.

In short, the police can pull you over for infractions or randomly. You need to co-operate with these stops by pulling over safely as soon as you can and providing your name and licensing information. It is only when the stop gets beyond a reasonably brief interference with your travels without reasonable grounds that you should get concerned. Otherwise, be polite and co-operate with the police, who are just doing their jobs and keeping us safe.